Burton stumbled over the ridge, glazed-over eyes peering out from beneath a mop of unkempt hair, torn clothes hanging off his emancipated frame. It had been what felt like weeks since he last ate and days since the last source of water, only his willpower driving him forward. He stood there, unseeing as his eyes slowly focused on the caldera that sat before him. He took in the view, gaze languidly moving between the verdant trees promising the relief of shade and the small lake that had formed in the middle. The scene slowly caused his brain to spin back up. With a cry he ran forward towards the source of water, haphazardly slipping over loose rock and greenery before finally collapsing at the edge of the lake. One hand snaked down for a single mouthful of water before, exhausted, he collapsed into unconsciousness.
"It was harmless your honour," Burton pleaded from the desk, "just a quick gold from people who should have known better!"
The judge peered at him over the bench, eyes cold and lips pinched in a sign of disapproval.
"Every time you sit before me you claim this Master Harrison, and yet you continue to turn up at my doorstep. While oftentimes I have been reluctant to believe you, there are times when this has indeed been true. However, the town can no longer ignore your behaviour. A family is dead"
At this, the room burst into a susurration.
"He's no good, we should have gotten rid of him sooner."
"Remember when he bankrupted poor Master Carver?"
"After that incident a week ago? The twins were never the same."
"That bar fight last year was so violent, my Harry never walked without a limp again"
As the whispers filled the room with their accusations, the judge kept his eyes locked with Burton. The accused shrivelled on the spot.
"But… your honour… it's not my fault that the barn caught fire, and I wasn't to know it would spread to the house. You are a good man of the law, you can't hold me responsible for this," Burton wheedled.
The judge's face remained as stone.
"Master Harrison, every time you appear here it's due to you taking advantage of someone's good graces, acting selfish or just plain greedy. Time and time again you act on your own wants and needs without taking into account the others around you. While you have repaid a lot of these debts to our town, I can no longer sit back and watch the damage you do to our people."
"Retcaller's Nest, as a frontier town, must rely on the nature of the good people here. There is nothing beyond but the unclaimed lands full of vermin and the merciless clans that prey upon us. We lose families every year to famine, accidents, sickness, and looking back at your history you have only contributed to these losses."
"However, you have left me with a dilemma."
Burton's ears perked up, perhaps there was a way to avoid a true punishment.
"Of course your honour. You know me, I have made my mistakes but I'm always willing to pay back the town. You know, put things right," Burton said, getting to his feet, worrying about the edge of his hat.
The judge paused, looking over his notes.
"There are those that call for your death…"
Burton paled, as cries from the crowd backed up the judge's words.
"But, the kingdom has strict requirements for what constitutes an offence that would call for that. And while as a frontier town we have more leeway than most I am reluctant to call for that kind of finality."
"Yes your honour, good and fair judgement. I've always said that about you," Burton muttered almost in reflex.
From behind him, he heard a voice speak up.
"Your honour, if I may. I have a suggestion that might work for us all."
Burton spun in his spot, finding the crowd parted to allow an elderly man access to the front of the public area.
"As the aggrieved you are welcome to such Master Montgomery. We are so sorry about your niece and her family, it is a travesty to lose such youth."
The old man nodded, taking a breath and steading himself as a single tear dropped from his cheek.
Old faker, Burton thought, putting it on for the show. These saps are going to eat it up. I'm fucked.
"Perhaps, he could still be used to help the town. With our bronze mine failing us, we have no more minerals with which to support our growth. We could send him out into the wilderness in search of resources. If he comes back with tales of a new metal seam, well that would help us out a lot. And if he doesn't…"
Cheers rose from the crowd, drowning out any end to that thought the old man had.
"Quiet all of you, this isn't a place for this kind of discordance!" the judge loudly exclaimed.
He locked eyes back on Burton, and for an entirely too long moment, the room was silent as he thought on what to do with the situation.
Finally, with a sigh, he replied, "your idea does have merit Master Montgomery."
Burton's face crumpled, "Your honour, that's a death sentence! There's nothing out there and you know it!"
"Quiet Master Harrison! You do not have a leg to stand in on this court, and it is my verdict that decides what happens here. I cannot sentence you to death, as nothing you have done warrants such an action. And yet, I cannot let you stay. This feels like a fair compromise, don't you think?"
Burton dropped into his seat like a sack of potatoes, eyes on the desk in front of him.
The judge addressed the two lawmen flanking his bench, "take him to the edge of town, give him enough food and water for a few days. Perhaps an old pick as well, as I do not see a way for him to find more metals without it. Let him free, and make sure he doesn't return."
"But… how am I to survive out there?" Burton asked.
"If God deems this an unfair punishment, you will find a way."
He awoke, sun dipping under the ridge surrounding the caldera. Pulling himself up to a seated position, he took the area in with newfound awareness.
This is… this place feels safe, he thought to himself. I could survive here for a while, surely. No need to keep searching for those assholes back at Retcaller's Nest.
A smirk crossed his lips at the thought of not giving the townspeople the satisfaction of his death.
As he stood up he felt his knees buckle, the trials and tribulations of his trip had eaten at his reserves. Limping slightly he forced himself to the tree line, passing his eyes over what he could make out in the dying light of the day. In the last sparks of light he noticed a glint, deep in the forest.
Metal, out here?
With the groans of a body giving out, he pulled himself through the small forest, willpower all he had left. Just as he was ready to collapse to the ground he saw it, the ruins of an old stone building poking up through the loamy dirt.
Just… a little bit more.
Struggling, he made his way to the stone structure half buried in the forest's floor. Before him stood the collapsed remains of the tip of a bell tower, the metal of the bell glinting through the gaps.
Having found shelter, he crawled into the remains, nestling himself under the bell and falling asleep.
Burton awoke to the musical trills of the dawn chorus, the light of the morning sun yet to peak into his new home. Eyelids languidly pulled themselves apart, body stiff from weeks of fleeing from his old home, the dazed look slowly cleared from his face. He looked down at his hands, the scratches and grazes painting a picture of what the trip took from him.
That right, I found a valley yesterday, he thought to himself as he sat up, leaning back against the bell.
Feeling the cold touch of the metal, he turned his head to inspect what he had found the night before just as the sun peaked the ridged hill of his new home. The bell shone in the light behind him, the sun picking out the gleaming sigils and lines etched masterfully into the structure. His eyes widened in shock.
Gold? Is this bell made of gold?!
In an almost panic, Burton stood up and circled what parts of the bell he could reach. Without the sun to gleam off its form the truth became clear, as the deep red of the metal spelt its nature.
This… this is god cursed Orichalcum.
His mind reeled at the possibilities. All the Orichalcum in the kingdom was owned by the king's retinue of witchmages. While the common man had no idea what purpose they used it for, rumours of sacrificial altars, of staves made of the precious metal, of the spikes they would drive into the living bodies of heretics were whispered in taverns in every small town.
The metal was not one that was found in abundance, small seams were found in random locations in the kingdom and were quickly bought out by the king. The amount of metal that went into this bell…
Burton looked up at it, this bell must be at least 2 metres tall. The walls are at least a couple of centimetres thick. This… this is a fortune.
With a chuckle, Burton began to put together a plan. With enough wood in the forest he could build some kind of small shelter, and with that he could explore the area. There could be more structures holding other treasures he had yet to encounter, objects that could set him up for life. If he gathered all he could, he could build supplies to travel to the capital and sell it directly to the king.
Mentally, he put together a list of what he needed to do.
Find food Build shelter Explore the area
Happy with the list he turned to look for food, only to pause as he heard the rip of his shirt as it finally gave up the ghost having been caught on the worn edge of the stone wall.
Clothes? Shit I don't know how those are made.
Burton took a long sip from his cupped hands, the cold water a visceral sensation as it travelled down his throat. Eyes closed, he took a deep breath, finally feeling the weight of his future slough off his shoulders. He broke into a coughing fit as something disgusting passed through his nose.
Sniffing around, trying to place the rancid odour, he quickly realised it was him. He stank. He stank of someone who had not bathed in a month, someone who had not had the time or the mental bandwidth to take care of himself properly.
Looking around with a misplaced shyness, he carefully removed the last shreds of his clothes, worried about what to do when they finally gave out. Lowering himself into the small lake he leant back on the banks of the body of water and felt his muscles relax. He sat like that, luxuriating in the water, until his hunger reminded him of how long it had been since he last ate.
Kicking off from the bank, he swam to the middle of the small lake. Taking a breath he ducked his head under the surface and took a look around. The water, crystal clear, revealed to him its meagre contents. A couple of schools of fish were present, and at the bottom a few more remains showed that this caldera did indeed once hold something more than it did now.
The roofs of a handful of houses poked through the muck at the bottom of the lake, water weeds slowly swaying around the stone objects as if to protect them from his view. A few glints of metal shimmered here and there, revealing that perhaps this bell wasn't the only source of the metal with which to make his fortune.
Returning to the bank, the grin plastered across Burton's face quickly turned to astonishment as he noticed his hands.
The scratches were gone. The bruises, the grazes, every sign of his struggle through the wilderness was completely missing.
Pulling himself out of the lake he looked over himself carefully, and he was pristine. No sign of wounds, no sign of damage whatsoever. Even old scars had somehow disappeared, as if it had never happened. In a moment of shock he realised his knee that he had been limping on for days didn't even twinge under the movement.
The smile spread further. A fresh start, he thought to himself.
Deep in the forest he found his next goal, a family of rabbits in a shallow warren. Having heard him approach, the small creatures had poked their noses out to see what this new strange animal was. Their inquisitive innocence told him something he had not realised yet, this area was entirely free of predators.
The area was full of food, berries grew on bushes that were in turn feeding the rabbits and he thought he may have spied some deer in the distance. While the area wasn't expansive, this was more than enough to keep him alive while he figured out what to do next. These rabbits were entirely fearless of him.
Gormless little twits, he thought to himself, I won't even need to hunt them myself. Just a few snares here and there and I'll be set. This couldn't be more of a paradise!
With thoughts of future bubbling in his mind, he reached out to the largest rabbit. With only a slight hesitation it stretched out to sniff his fingers, and with a flick of his wrist he had it by the neck. With a grin he snapped its neck and whistling happily he wandered back to his belltower.
The first week passed with struggles, even if things did look hopeful.
The trees turned out harder to deal with than he expected. While the bark gave way to the pick's edge, the only implement he had on hand, the wood itself was barely scratched by a full swing of his strength. It was as if the wood was denser than it should be.
While initially this wasn't too much of a problem, he had a roof in the form of the belltower after all, on the second night in the area it rained heavily. The wind whipped the water at a 45 degree angle and try as he might he could not find a place to shelter himself from it.
This led to spending more time than he would like dragging dropped branches and old logs back to his campsite and stacking them haphazardly. The construct this led to would only be considered a solution to a charitable eye, but it was all he had.
This did lead to yet another discovery within a day. Near the western edge of the caldera he found a clearing, a monster of a tree had been uprooted by some unknown force a while ago. Its fall had cleared part of the forest, knocking branches off its neighbours and creating just the supply of wood he needed. As he was clearing what he could move, he noticed in the exposed roots a glimmer of something.
Peering closer, the telltale red specs in the dirt quickly had his heart pounding. Digging through overturned dirt confirmed his suspicions, there was more of the precious metal here.
Was that why the remains of the town were here? Did this place used to be a town built around these deposits? If so, why are there deposits left here so close to the surface? The questions burned through his mind, the possibilities for what he could do this place rocketing faster than he could comprehend.
Later that week, diving in the lake netted him more treasures. While his initial view from the surface gave the impression of a town swallowed by the ground, things were in much worse repair as he investigated. The buildings were crushed, signs of village life scattered in the silt and weeds that hid what was now rightfully his. From the remains he could see, this looked to have once been a holy sight. Plotting how tall the building his belltower sat on, it must have been a thing of majesty.
While most of what he recovered from the depths was basic village fair, the remains of candlesticks, old knives and bits of metal formed in what could have only been old holy symbols. The real treasure didn't reveal itself until he was going through the collection he had placed on the bank. While a lot of it was worthless to him outside of the value of the metal, he found an old axehead.
In any other situation, finding an old axe head would have done him no good. Whoever these people were who used to live here, they had been gone a long time. However, the orichalcum defied logic, the metal shining as if new as soon as he wiped the muck from it. This turned out to be true of every object he pulled from the depths, it was if the metal could not be marred. Testing the sharpness of the edge resulted in a fresh cut that closed up as he watched from the dampness of the lake water still on his hands.
In an act that a master craftsman would cry at the sight of, Burton jammed the head as best as he could on a loose branch and swung it at a tree to test its sharpness. The force of the swing easily separated the metal from the improvised haft, and the axe head disappeared into the woods. Shortly after uttering a curse, Burton followed it.
A few heart pounding minutes later, he found it again. The flight path had sent the heavy metal in an arc that had caused it to bounce off a tree, falling amongst the roots. Picking it up, he quickly checked it over, relief flooding his soul as it remained sharp and clean. With a sigh of relief his eyes trailed up and stopped over the gash the axe had caused in the tree.
Wait a second, he thought to himself.
Holding the metal awkwardly in his hand, he dragged it across the trunk, leaving a clear scratch in the otherwise impervious wood.
With a cry of glee he rushed back to his campsite. By the end of the day he had carved himself a rough, but more thoughtful haft, and by the end of the week he had finalised his plan.
If he spent half a year here, extracting a decent amount of metal from the earth and building himself a house, perhaps he could petition the king for ownership of the land in exchange for a deal for the metal. If that failed he could make sure that he had enough aside to keep him comfortable till the end of his days. He had food, he had water, and now he had the means with which to build something that would last a bit longer.
Burton sat on the hobbled together deck surrounding the old bell tower. Half way through the project he had regretted unearthing the ancient building, moving the weathered stone spire had been a nightmare that felt like it had no end point, but now he was basking in the result. His ramshackled wooden house's towering edifice of stone was somewhere he could relax and see the entire caldera from.
The sights he had seen from this vantage point, the countryside freezing over from snow and ice while some latent heat kept his paradise warm, migrations from pack hunters passing through while he watched safely from above. It was almost like this area was under some divine protection he could not fathom.
Sipping on the orichalcum cup full of tea brewed from nettles picked just over the ridge, he thought over what was left to do before he could finally leave his homestead. He had mined more than 4 times his weight in ore, he had a handful of artifacts from whoever had lived here before him, and he had processed wood from his forest. While originally he had no intention or understanding of the properties of the forest, this last six months it had been a godsend for him.
After his struggle to cut through the trunk of the trees in the caldera, the discovery of orichalcum's ability to process the dense wood had jump-started his development. The resulting material seemed to have properties he had never seen before, resistant to mildew, rot and even fire itself. The fallen tree under which he had discovered the first evidence of ore still sat in pristine condition, if the new growth was cleared away it seemed it had just toppled.
While his initial attempts to start a fire with the wood, which he had coined "Ironwood", had resulted in swearing and frustration, the small flickering result had revealed something unexpected. The Ironwood flame did not spread, nor did it char the wood visually. Experiments over the first month revealed to him that it was almost as if the damage from flame took multitudes longer to leave a mark while still providing heat.
It was as if the Ironwood contained more vital essence than anyone could expect a piece of wood that size to contain. It burnt longer, it took more weight to break, and attempts to curve the wood with hot water took weeks longer than it should before it would hold a new shape. It was due to these properties that he had a stronger house, but also due to these properties that he had trouble refining the design of it.
Taking in the last of his tea, it was time for his final check of the mine.
The entrance to his excavation project was one of the structures he was most proud of. While his attempts to mould the wood to the forms he required for a refined house, it served excellently for beams and supports. For this very reason his mine contained not only the open pit where had been uncovering the precious ore, but small rooms around the edges where he had been storing any artifacts found both underground and in the lake.
While these rooms were well stocked with treasures he had never expected to find, the immortal materials that seemed to spawn in this caldera had led to more premade tools and luxuries that made his ramshackled hut as anachronistic feeling as it was. Cups, plates, cutlery and even a handful of almost eldritch seeming devices had been uncovered that made him feel more like a lord than the strange forest man he had become. Lights that turned on as the sun fell, and seemed to have no visible powersource. A block of metal covered in sigils that refused the heat of the day, staying cold at all hours. A chair that seemed to leech away his aches and pains. All of these artifacts felt as if they came from childhood stories of bartering with wights, without the cost usually associated with such foolhardy actions.
In all of these treasures, there was one that he kept returning to, the book. While his own attempts to create something akin to paper had failed, this book must have been made from the pulp of the Ironwood trees. Just like his own experiments, this paper refused to stain no matter what he used to mark it. This did serve some benefit however, as this meant that the words of ancients of this land were unmarked and fresh as if they had been written the day before. The language was unknown to him, but the pictures contained within spun tales that he spent a lot of his time pondering.
The people who had lived here before, they built their town around the edges of this caldera for something that existed within. Burton assumed this must have been the metal, or perhaps it was also the wood, but they near worshipped this pocket of land. Some pictures told stories of this being a sacred land to them, while others the importance of what they were granted by it. He had no idea who these people were, or what exactly this caldera was, but it did not stop him from spending his nights going over the book again and again.
Standing from the last box's packaging, he was finally done. While his attempts to make barrels had failed, he had half a dozen impromptu boxes. Held together by makeshift nails of whatever artifacts he found that were pointed enough, he had packed each of them with the mined ore. These six boxes were the wealth that he had built for himself over the last six months, and if everything went south they would be the lifeline he bet the rest of his life on.
The plan was to take these boxes west a day or two and bury them somewhere safe. If, as he feared, the witchmages or monarchy decided that this land was theirs by right these six boxes would be his hidden payment for their treacherous move. He would show them to the caldera, play the good citizen, ask for the payment they deem worthy of his find and then take these boxes as additional taxes.
All that was left was to hide these boxes, pack his bags with examples of his finds and head to the capitol. Looking down at the scraps he still wore, a sigh escaped his lips. Perhaps packing something easily tradable, a small knife or the like with which to trade for some clothing along the journey might be prudent. He could not imagine a world where he could turn up and demand an audience with the king while looking like a beggar.
If all went to plan, he would be in the capital within 3 months.
Burton held in the sneeze that had been building for the last few minutes. This damn hay he had been hiding in was getting to him, the scratch of it on his skin was infuriating. This was not the way he was meant to be entering the capitol, hiding in a wagon like some kind of vagabond to avoid the eyes of the town's wardens.
Those damn villagers, why do the weak always seek to take what he has worked hard to make. It was just like Retcaller's Nest all over again, he had just tried to do what he needed to do to survive and they had taken advantage of him. All it took was one of those greedy bastards to see what he had to trade, and they decided to jump him as he left town. They had left him with nothing but his walking stick and a couple of bits of orichalcum he had hidden in his boot. Little did they know the walking stick was Ironwood.
It had taken him months more than he expected to get here because of that, stopping to beg for food or spending a week working a farm in order to fund his travel. When he finally got here, he had been denied access by the righteous assholes guarding the gate. He would show them, he just needed to steal some good clothing and get that audience and everything would be ok.
Finally stepping inside the inner walls in his stolen outfit was as if he was stepping into another world. The keep was arcane in a way he had never expected. He had of course heard rumours of the queen's influence on the way things were done, of her insistence of the witchmages and sygaldry that would bolster his power, but this was beyond the pale. The lines and marks before him caused scenes to jump to mind, bodies hung from beneath the crooked branches of an old tree. The beauty of the metal etchings that covered the walls of the keep caused his eyes to scream in pain, as if they were not built to take in something of this ken. Dabbing the corner of his eyes, his fingers came away with a spec of blood.
A chuckle from behind him, "Havin' a bit of trouble with it, that's normal. I suggest you don't spend too long looking at the shapes. They were not built for the likes of you."
Burton turned to see who had uttered the words, and paled as he took in the visage of the witchmage who was leaning in the shadow of the gates. The figure stood nonchalantly, an oversized brim shadowing the face. Burton could not tell exactly what he was looking at, the edges blurred as he tried to take it in. They were wearing a long coat, no, now it was a rich tunic of silk with gold trimmings, no wait, it was an elegant ball gown with the shoulders revealed. It was holding an orichalcum staff, no, it was a pen of the most intricate design.
He felt as if his head was splitting, his mind attempting to piece together what he saw and fighting itself on what the truth was. This could only be the work of wights. He lowered his eyes, the sight of normal dirt almost a balm to his thoughts.
He struggled to speak, acknowledge these comments, but the only sound that escaped was a burbling, breath escaping between the spit that seemed to fill his mouth.
"No need to respond, just keep your head down. I would wipe that blood off your face before you enter the audience chamber, the queen does not like it getting on the carpets."
Burton managed to nod and wrest himself towards the keep as if in a dream. Taking a stolen kerchief from his pocket, he dabbed at his face before returning the red soaked material to his pocket.
As if he had not travelled the steps between, he found himself in the audience chamber of the keep with the King before him. His mouth tasted of metal, a sharp acidic smell burning into his synapses. His limbs heavy as if made of the very Ironwood he had left behind. Through the fog of his mind, he caught the interaction in snippets that burned through the mist.
The witchmage took his kerchief and brought it to its lips.
The king asking it questions about the caldera, to which it could respond without fail.
Hands on him, taking the staff and the metal hidden in his boot.
The king and the witchmage, who he referred to as Grainne, discussing the materials.
A proclamation he could not remember.
Paper handed to him.
Being ushered from keep.
He woke up in an inn he did not remember paying for, in clothes that beggared what he had worn to the audience. Had he been taken, was this the end of his dreams? He could not remember the details of what had happened with the king, he felt weak as if he had been drugged for the whole procedure. Did he have to resort to his half a dozen hidden boxes?
His eyes caught on the table in the inn, on which was the paper that had been handed to him during the audience. Pulling himself to his feet, which threatened to give out under him, he stumbled to the chair and picked up the paper.
Writ of the King
The monarchy recognises the rights of one Burton Harrison to the rights of the discovered caldera in the north, within the boundaries of the unclaimed lands. This writ seals the agreement between the monarchy and Lord Harrison for the ownership of the land in exchange for first rights of trade for all produced and extracted from the valley.
The Deeprun Caldera, as it is to be henceforth known, will pass down the Harrison line until this trade ceases.
It… looked real. The seal on it was a mix of wax and metal, bonded to the paper in a way that he could not fathom and could not separate. The paper itself reminded him of the book, its inability to bend leading him to believe this was somehow Ironwood paper.
The other papers here spoke of the further agreement, the king was intending to send settlers and resources to the Caldera in exchange for six boxes of orichalcum ore. He was to have an armed escort back to his homestead, armed guards that would stay and help the initial settlement. There were also offers written here for trade, detailing exactly what the crown would offer in exchange for the resources generated.
In wise hands, this could fund and supply a town… indefinitely. This was the start of his future and looked brighter than any of the dreams in his head. Finally, he could show those ignorant townspeople what they lost when they banished him.
At the back of the paperwork, there was a single paper granting him his new title.
Lord Harrison of Deeprun.
Burton couldn't stop the grin from spreading across his face as the last part of his mansion was finished. The dull thump of the rubber mallet echoed across the caldera as the workman hammered the cross beam through the bell's loop, stories above the milling of the townspeople. This was the only part of his house Burton was unwilling to compromise on, that bell was the first sign of his new life, and he wished for that bell tower to stand high above Deeprun Town giving the only view into the caldera.
Working with stonemasons for months had resulted in a curious design. While a lot of the tower was in one piece, parts here and there had collapsed. Digging out the base had revealed that whatever the tower was originally attached to had been lost to the ground. This left him with a beautiful patchwork of the old and the new, the base of the tower of modern design, slowly giving in to the old stone work until the top was all of the original design. Ignoring, of course, the balcony that he had demanded be updated by someone who knew what they were doing.
Deeprun was busy, it was crowded, the cry of new opportunities had brought families to him from across the kingdom. To avoid issues with the mining operation, the town had been built on the outside of the Caldera ridge. This gave the town a unique semicircular sprawl, settling across the south edges of his old home. Burton viewed his time living in the verdant lands within with nostalgia, but nothing could compare to the life that wealth now provided him.
The town itself was painted in pigments of soil and dust, the rapid growth replacing the greenery that once stood here with mud and scars on the ground, but all had seen the greenery that stood just over the rim. Houses had sprung up for new workers, two inns were already in competition with each other attempting to provide only the best food and entertainment to miners returning each evening. The only building that competed with Burton's house for majesty was a church, one built by and with the insistence of the crown to preach and celebrate the seventeen branches of the deadwood god. A building that Retcaller's Nest was never big enough to need.
Burton's mood was high, this was the day he had been waiting for since the deed to Deeprun had been granted to him. This was the first day where the resources exported were no longer required to pay for the development of the town. The first day of profit.
The council rooms felt like a second home to him at this point, sitting at the head of the Ironwood table. Burton passed his eyes over the walls of the office for the umpteenth time, taking in the artifacts that gave the rooms their air of importance. This building was one of the four buildings in the town entirely built of the resources produced by the caldera, rich in Ironwood and Orichalcum. Each building venerated in this way was vital to the town: his mansion, the council rooms, the lawkeeper's domain and of course the church of the Deadwood God.
This reflected the four members of his council. As the lord of the town, he sat at the head of the table. His place of office was well known to every member of the town, a fact that brought him no end of joy.
Could I get away with a statue of myself in the centre of town, he pondered before dismissing the thought.
To his right sat Jameson Burch, his record keeper and accountant. Jameson spent most of his time in these council chambers, and was Burton's most trusted advisor. While trust did not come easy to the ex-conman, it was a fact that Burch's rise as money keeper was entirely dependent on the success of Deeprun. With the town bound to him by the writ of the king, this man would likewise by bound by his side making sure the town prospered.
To Burton's left sat the Reverend Amberland, the man he feared most on the council. The reverend was the representative of the crown, being the symbol of both the kingdom's ruler and the kingdom's faith. While Burch could never threaten the writ of the king, Burton was troubled by what reach the reverend might have. However, that worry was nothing next to the shapes he had seen in the man's shadow. Late nights in the chamber, when his focus and mind were all but spent, he had seen things rise from that shadow that were gone as soon as he tried to bring them into focus.
Finally, on the far side of the table sat Lawkeeper Jost. Jost was exactly the kind of Lawkeeper Burton wanted in his new town, corrupt to the bone in exchange for the luxury and power that was granted to her.
"My good people, today we celebrate the day where Deeprun is not only self sufficient but able to fuel its own growth," Burch opened with, eyes peering over the half moon glasses.
The Reverend raised a single hand, a signal the rest had grown used to.
"The church has noticed this growth only came after your lengthy contributions to the church, the king will be pleased by your priorities," he added.
Burton took this in, sharing a glance with Burch.
"It does not escape my memory that I would not have had the chance to raise Deeprun if not for the benevolence of the church and state," Burton replied, to the nod of acceptance from the Reverend.
"Lawkeeper Jost, are there any reports of note you wish to give?"
Jost lifted her hat before standing to talk, a habit that was typical of these meetings. The woman did not like to be seated for long outside of the Lawkeeper's domain, especially while she orated.
"Lord Harrison, do you perchance recall the mine foreman's incident with that woman? The one that he proposed to after a mere handful of weeks, who ran off with a sack of Orichalcum?"
A dark look passed over Burton's face, one that Jost took as the only response she needed.
"Well Lord Harrison, do you remember 3 months back when we intercepted a deal with external merchants for Ironwood? Someone had gotten in good graces with the lead woodsman and had fashioned a key to the wood stockpile? A grift we managed to stop, but never managed to catch the culprit for?"
The look darkened.
"Finally, do you remember the waif the church took in who pilfered half a dozen orichalcum candlesticks before disappearing into the night?"
"Heresy," exclaimed the Reverend under his breath.
"Yes Lawkeeper, I remember this string of incidents. Events that have kept your keepers busy for months now," Burton said, holding on to the accusations of incompetence he wished to cry.
"Well, Milord, one of my keepers approached me just yesterday with the intent to marry. As is my duty I peered into her history before giving my approval only to find a spotless record. A record a tad too spotless. As we all know, everyone has something in their past they wish to hide."
"The shadow's of his branches colour us all, some more than others," intoned the Reverend.
"Precisely, Reverend. So I took the liberty of checking her lodgings while she was out plying my keeper with drinks and food. There I discovered paints, rouges, wigs and the remains of a Deeprun ore bag. This morning I arrested her and she sits in the cells as we speak."
"However, no pressure has caused her to crack. While her lodgings point to her guilt, they do not lay the clear path to determine her involvement in these crimes. The mine foreman proclaims this is the woman who led him on, but as you know he is deep in his cups at the best of times."
"So, Lord Harison. How do you wish to move forward with this?"
Burton leaned back in his chair, stroking his chin.
"You say there isn't enough evidence that this is the same woman? Reverend, would the church frown on punishment regardless?"
The Reverend leaned forward.
"It is not the church's providence to declare guilt, it is the Deadwood God's. If this woman is guilty, she has done you personal harm Lord Harison. If not, any punishment you lay on her shoulders will simply slide off."
Burton's mind wandered to a burning house, a family screaming, the lantern laying shattered at the foot of the burning wall.
"Yes, of course. Lawkeeper, bring me to this woman," he decided.
Even in the shadow of the cell, Lyray's beauty shone for Burton.
She was guilty, that much he was aware of. Her face was forgettable in the way that a true conman could take advantage of. She could, and probably had been, anyone she wanted to. Her brown locks took him in, reflecting the dim light of the lamps in the room, but they were beautiful in a way that any description would be unable to pinpoint. Average, in their own unique way.
But it was her eyes that took him in, they were what bound his heart so tightly to her. In those dark reflections he saw her scheming mind. He saw the way that she was already sizing him up, seeing what she could get from him. He saw thoughts pass behind those eyes, how she was going to play him, what kind of woman he was most likely to respond to and how she could take advantage of that.
"Before you say anything, I know it was you."
She blinked at his words, her body languidly shifting slightly. He could tell she had been a moment away from starting her script and this had thrown her off.
They talked all night, the Lawkeeper bringing food to the cells for both of them. Burton didn't notice the time pass, as they exchanged tales of their previous cons. He felt like he had finally found someone who could be open about this with. An equal.
Jost had private words with the leader of the town, she warned him this woman was not to be trusted.
She was released the next morning.
Deeprun sprawled out from the rim of the caldera, a semi circular mass of humanity pressing right up against the walls that kept them from the interior. Fueled by trade and the riches of the area, it had become a known name throughout the kingdom. Burton sipped from his morning brew, sitting on the balcony surrounding the belltower, viewing his domain.
From this position, almost the highest point in the town, he could see the town's growth until it spilled around the wall surrounding the caldera. Unlike the others living in the town, he was also granted a view of the greenery within the caldera. Well, the half of the greenery that was left anyway.
The Ironwood trees had been much easier to start with than the full mining operation, especially with the orichalcum that could be found on the surface with which to fashion tools. This had led to a good third of the caldera being stripped very quickly, the greenery parting to show the earth below that the town plundered. The water was the first thing to go, and Burton was crushed when they realised this was in no way renewable. The reverend told him he should be happy about the thousands of lives it had saved in the capital, but some selfish part of him did not care.
None of the natural resources were present in the town, with the majority of the buildings being built of the more common wood and metals found outside the rim. The town had a stranglehold on what was removed from the caldera, partially because of the restrictions the royal family had on their trade. There were some relics that had been dug up that were available to the populace, streetlights built around the remains of some of Burton's earliest discoveries.
A woman in peerless armour stood in the square below Burton's house, and as they met eyes she nodded in acknowledgement before returning to her patrol. Lawkeeper Jost had become one of the most influential members of the town, with prosperity had come those wishing to take advantage of the townspeople. Half a decade ago Burton had lost his patience with miners and lumberjacks taking scraps back to their house in order to supplement the income he paid them. Some argued it was just to add a little decoration to their houses, or to show their children what they spent all their time doing, but Burton knew better.
In order to counteract this behaviour, the lawkeepers had demanded that he pass a law banning the possession of any of the rare resources. The lawkeepers had gone door to door, finding small things in almost every house. Bats made of Ironwood, cutlery crudely fashioned from orichalcum. It was an epidemic in Burton's mind, and he had no regrets in enacting that law. He did have to admit, he had been a bit worried of Jost's power at first though.
It was this exact worry that had led to a clandestine meeting in the lawkeeper's domain 4 years ago. A shadowy deal, something that tied Jost's power and privilege directly to his own success. A percentage agreed on, hands shook.
No, Jost was not a problem at all, but that did not mean everything was amicable in Deeprun town. Burton eyed the only object in the town that had eventually overshadowed his own house, the dead tree which only a year ago had finally grown to a point where it competed with his belltower. There was nothing he could do to halt the growth of that thing, he had spent weeks talking to alchemists about how to stunt it, how to slow its growth, how to do anything at all and they all agreed there was nothing.
It wasn't exactly a tree, not as most would know it. The deadtrees that grew out of every church of the Deadwood God were never alive, some claimed they were not even made of wood. They were manifestations of the divinity that they all worshipped, and they sprung from that power. Deeprun Town had somehow fallen under the eyes of the ancient being, or at least that's what the priests had told him. What once was a small tree in the centre of the church was now a looming presence over the entire town, and as the sun moved its shadow slowly passed almost all the buildings here in the centre of town.
Burton had happily provided the materials for the building of the church, in his mind the loss of Ironwood and Orichalcum was the payment for creating a stronger tie with the monarchy. What he hadn't expected was his first 'exports' to the capital were simply funnelled into the local church. While the church had clearly used some of these to create the fabled witchmage staves, Burton had no idea where the rest of the resources had gone and that troubled him.
Finishing his morning drink, Burton decided that ruminating on the unchangeable was not healthy. His binding contract with the capital was what had granted him this opportunity, and while he wished he could be done with it the idea was not worth the trouble. It was time to visit the caldera.
Lyray was not happy to see Burton as he descended. This was a common occurrence, looking back Burton couldn't remember what he saw in the woman before they married. He remembered the early days, staying up late scheming and fucking. He remembered being caught up in the idea of having a partner in business at his side, someone who understood how things like this should work. But he did not remember why it had to be her. He remembered the emotions, but not the cause.
"Did you enjoy overlooking your domain, your majesty? How was this morning's cheering of the populace?" she said with a sneer.
Burton ignored her, whenever he replied things got heated and he was sick of her attitude. She had gotten worse since the pregnancy started, but he was deluding himself if he thought everything was pleasant before that. The only thing that got him through the days with her now was that he would soon have an heir.
"I'll be heading to the caldera, dear. Hopefully when I get back you are already asleep," he replied.
"You'd love that wouldn't you? Not having to deal with me? Maybe I'll go back to my sisters and you won't have to see me again at all."
"Don't be ridiculous, you're a month away from birth, this is no time to travel," he snapped back.
They had discussed this, if she wanted to leave she could do so after the birth, but he wasn't willing to risk her running off with the heir to Deeprun Town. They stared at each other, the air tense. Every day was like this, they knew how the other thought and every interaction, every word shared was a chess match between the two. He had put a ban on her travelling, she had gone to the church and somehow convinced them that she needed expensive spices imported to supplement her diet. He had kept his money private, she had started putting purchases on credit under his name.
He knew that one false move that she could take advantage of was all that she needed to win this, he was the one on the defensive. He was loath to admit it but she was much keener than him, the only advantage he had was his position. This was something he would need to talk to Jost about, again. The lawkeeper had never been happy with his choices in this regard and he knew he would get yet another 'told you so' out of her.
Wordlessly breaking eye contact with her, he left. She would think she won this one, but in a way she had given him the impetus he needed to deal with this sooner rather than later.
The closest gate to his house was, as it always was, crowded with workers heading in for their daily shift. They parted for him, as they did every time he visited, and he did his best to ignore the looks they gave him. In the early days of the town the looks had been nothing but admiration, but more and more recently he caught the scowl of someone who saw what he had and wanted it. Jost had told him she couldn't punish workers for looks they gave him, many nights had been spent in the town hall discussing this.
As he approached the gatehouse, what sounded like a shouting match made itself evident over the din of the workers' conversations. The entrance came into view as the crowd parted, presenting the scene to Burton of a worker on the ground with a lawkeeper's orichalcum boot in his back.
"What seems to be the problem, lawkeeper?"
At his words all heads in the area swivelled to him. The lawkeeper did not lift his boot.
"Another one trying to get in to work the mines without a worker's permit milord."
Burton sauntered to the man lying prone before lowering himself to one knee.
"Were you aware of our permit system?"
The man on the ground shook his head nervously.
"No milord, I… uh… arrived in town not one full day ago. I just wanted a chance to support my family," the supposed worker stammered.
Burton stood, giving the lawkeepers a worried look.
"I know we have this system in place in order to protect our town, but perhaps we can be lenient this time? I shall personally take him to the guildhall, we can make sure that he registers himself and give him this opportunity."
The lawkeeper looked thoughtful at this suggestion, hand to his chin. Seemingly swayed by Burton's words he nodded slowly.
"Of course milord, that is a generous offer."
The lawkeeper helped the man back to his feet apologetically, before ushering him towards Burton. Burton draped one arm over the man's shoulders and led him out and away from the crowd.
It had all gone off with a hitch. Burch's suggestions on how to win the common man's heart were all pantomime, but Burton had loved the idea. All it took was a handful of public moments of compassion, of helping out someone in need, and already the perspective of the town was ever so slightly changing.
He handed the offender off to a group of lawkeepers who stepped out of an alley halfway to the guild. He was willing to play the magnanimous leader of the town in front of the people, but these people still needed to pay for trying to get away with trying to pull a fast one on him.
The crowd cheered as the last Ironwood tree was pulled through the gate into Deeprun. This was the moment they had all waited for, now the caldera was purely a mine belching forth the rare mineral for the town to all benefit from. The council had spent weeks planning this celebration, putting together a feast for all the people of the town. It would all end with the raising of the statue of Burton, further tying the image of their leader with goodwill and prosperity.
It was a masterwork.
The last ten years for Burton had been all about optics. His team worked hard to portray the firm but kind leader, the one person who offered anyone across the land the chance to build a new life in Deeprun town. They hid the ugliness of what they were doing behind a thin layer of positive messaging. They were in fact, doing it right now. Behind the workers bringing in the last tree there were lawkeepers in the guise of doctors watching the miners return and separating those showing signs of the sickness. More and more of the workers returning from the caldera were coming down with something, and no one the town hired could tell what it was.
It started with a sense of dread, something none of them could pinpoint the source of. This proceeded to blood that would seep out of the corner of their eyes, which gave the disease the name the town knew it by, The Grief. As time passed, their body would start to decay, rashes appearing across the skin before it peeled off entirely. Everyone who showed the first sign either had to stay out of the mines or eventually their body would decay, leaving them a pile of gibbering viscera.
The church was spinning it as the glory of Deadwood God, that the mine was a god given gift and the workers were being exposed to pure divinity. Burton did not believe this story, records showed that it was caused by long term exposure to something under the ground. The longer and more consistent the shifts were the more likely someone was to show symptoms, and it required at least a decade of working in the mines before the first symptom showed.
While it had led to a loss of workers, and Burton didn't agree it was a result of divine presence, the town had benefited from it in its own sick way. The sense of dread had driven more and more members of the town into the church, and the church pushed the importance of the mine for their religion. As long as they managed anyone who began to show signs of fear and reduced the hours they spent underground the workforce was bound to the town in a religious fervour Burton could work with.
Someone in the crowd cheered his name, and Burton forced a smile as members of the public turned to him echoing the call and raising glasses. He raised his own hand in reply, while scanning the crowd for his son. The child was running through the crowd with a group of youths his age, waving streamers and snatching snacks from tables set up on the side of the road. He smiled at the scene.
Little Elias was the only source of innocence in his life, but it was only in the last few years that he felt a desperate need to protect that.
"Your kid seems to be having a good time," a voice at his side commented.
Burton turned to see Hans, the foreman of his mine, watching the same scene with amusement clear on his face.
"He loves celebrations, sometimes I wonder if I put on things like this just to see his excitement," Burton replied.
Hans was an interesting man, and one of Burton's biggest supporters. When they had to reduce the hours of miners showing signs of The Grief, Hans had declared Burton's proclamation as the rare sign of kindness in a lord. He helped with the celebrations, he let Burton know of the exact number of his people going to the church, he trusted Burton more than he deserved. There was one problem with this however.
Hans was a good man.
This was someone Burton could not corrupt, he had tried in roundabout ways that couldn't be tracked back to him. Hans had a steadfast set of ethics he would not bend on, and the only thing that kept him close to Burton was the spin that the council had worked so hard on.
"Aye, it's good to see him happy again. I was worried when his mother passed that the boy would be drowned in sadness for his whole childhood," Hans continued.
"He's a smart boy, he understands that happiness in life is always going to be tempered by accidents," Burton replied, the line practised.
"And yet he doesn't even avoid the mine! I remember the morning we found her body crumpled at the bottom of the entrance, a gruesome thing to see."
Burton didn't reply, playing the part he had built for himself over the years.
"I'm sorry milord, I shouldn't bring up such a dark time in a day of celebration. Today is about the town," Hans continued, apologetically.
Burton waved a hand in his direction.
"Please do not worry, it's something I know I will have to live with and while the wound never really heals I don't expect you all to tiptoe around it."
He smiled at Hans, the slight look of pain behind the smile something that took days of work in front of a mirror to get just right.
"You should be celebrating with the rest of the town, go have some fun."
Hans cheered to this, before stepping into the crowd, groups cheering him as he passed. Yes, today was a good day for Burton, things were finally cemented in place in a way he could see the rest of his life feeling quite comfortable.
Burton sat in his office with Burch, the record keeper now hunched over with age. He hadn't been a young man when Burton took him on but the last 20 years seemed to have aged him more than the years should have.
"How goes our little special export Burch?" Burton asked.
"As per your suggestion to the church, the small town of Retcaller's Nest is now the quarantine zone for those incapacitated by The Grief." The elderly record keeper peered at his notes before continuing, "The report from the crown agreed this was the closest settlement to house them."
"How are they coping?"
"Not well, the drain on the town has caused quite a few issues. The kingdom has provided some funds to help them set up for care but they were not prepared."
Burton sighed, surely this should feel better than it did.
"One last call of business, Lord Harrison, there is another miner we have had to collect who is telling stories of flesh in the mines," Burch said with a frown.
"Is it the same story?"
"The exact same milord. He speaks of the mine as if he is carving into the body of the ancient, of the flesh giving away before his pick, of seeing blood spill down the walls at every strike. He is giving the same warning all the previous ones have as well."
Burton sighed, looking up at his closest advisor. This was something that had only appeared in the last year, and only occurred in those whose hours were tempered in an attempt to lessen the effect of The Grief. Right now this extreme sign of the disease was something only the miners who had started the venture with him were suffering from.
"Does Reverend Amberland have anything to say about it?"
Burch shook his head.
"We have queried the church, they simply state that this is the effect of being in the presence of divinity without believing in it enough. That these people's delusions are the lack of faith manifesting. That they have fallen into the shadow of the Deadwood God's branches."
They both stopped at these words, and looked out the window at the sky. A sky which once would have been filled with stars, but now was blotted out by the dead tree which towered over the town and the caldera.
"Haven't we all though."
"As you can see, a rising problem is the number of workers willing to enter the mines," Mart said, sliding the paper across the table of the council chambers.
Burton took in the numbers, not for the first time wishing Burch was still around to take care of this. He had nothing against the younger man who had taken his place as the town's money handler, but they had never had the same connection his predecessor did. Burch had come to him with solutions, but it felt like Mart only came to him with problems.
"The kingdom is still buying the ore at a high price though, correct?" Burton asked.
Mart shook his head, "The original writ simply stated they had the first rights to trade deals. The official word we have received from the capital this morning is that they no longer need the ore."
"No longer needed? What the hell does that mean?"
Mart looked down at his notes, scanning through what he had written.
"We assume that since prior to Deeprun town orichalcum was an incredibly rare ore, they were originally supporting the kingdom with a limited supply. The glut that we have contributed to over the last 30 years has outlived its usefulness."
"Have you heard tales of what the capital looks like now?" Mart continued, "The spires of the city are fashioned from the metal, there's ornamentation all over the buildings and you can see it from a mile away. Their witchmage's are all equipped, and they have plenty of ore spare in case something goes wrong. They simply have no more use for the metal,"
Burton leaned forward, holding his head in his hands.
"Do we have any additional buyers?" he asked, hopefully.
"We do, but no one has the funds to pay as much as the monarchy once did. The city will not fail, but perhaps some of the extravagance may fade as years go on."
A silence filled the chamber. Every member of the council had relied on the explosive growth of the town in order to fund their own lifestyle. Well, other than the reverend whose seat had been empty for meetings for over a year now. The church's popularity, while having always been a mandatory religion for the land, had become something akin to religious fervour. It seemed that the reverend felt like he no longer needed these meetings.
Jost was here, of course. She always was at these meetings, but with the fervour gripping the town the very will of the people had been sapped. Her people had less and less work to do, and every meeting she seemed more and more bored with the position. Burton often forgot she was in the room.
"Is there another industry we could supplement the ore with? There's very few other settlements out this far, surely there is something we could use," Burton suggested.
"Investigations are still ongoing, however as we refused the rights to build with Ironwood the growth of the town had a… cost on the local area. Hunters are having to range further and further to find anything, and animals they find are scared and emaciated. We have found traces of a possible iron deposit, but it is quite a distance from the town. We do have options we can look into."
"Thank you for your diligence, hopefully there's some good news soon. For now, I think that's all we needed to cover. I'll see you both in two days for the next meeting."
Burton sat on his balcony, looking out over the town. Deeprun town had changed a lot in the last few years, and it now had the look of a town in perpetual twilight owing to the relics that shone whenever dark fell. The church's deadwood tree had become something out of legend, with branches so thick that patches of sunlight were no longer the norm. Children would play with them, chasing the patches as they slowly and lazily passed through the town.
He had never been a religious man, sure he had attended the required ceremonies, paid his dues and done everything the kingdom asked, but belief is something else. He remembered his teenage years in Retcaller's Nest, dreading every service's monotonous chanting with the sickly smell of the blood welling up in the etched pathways of the altar. There were those he saw whose eyes filled with conviction, but he never felt it himself.
The last few years felt different, there was something undeniable about the tree that could be seen from the distance towering over the town. In the early days he had attempted to stop its growth, but the reports he had received on the tree had filled him with curiosity. Every single person who looked into it had reported back to him tales of dry bark, dead wood and undescribable noises from inside the trunk. One enterprising agent attempted to chop into the tree, and the next day his body could be spied high in the branches, hanging from the wood.
It was otherworldly, it was unique, it was… terrifying. And in that terror, a spark of belief had burnt in his chest.
The tree had brought people from around the kingdom, pilgrims to see evidence of their god, an avatar of rot. A tourism that he could take advantage of if he felt the need, and yet something held him back. He allowed the trinkets, the replications of the tree fashioned from the orichalcum the town was famous for, but there was something sacred about the journey these people were taking.
The ground shook, violently, waking him from his thoughts. Grabbing the railing of the balcony for support, Burton held his breath as he waited it out. The bell softly clanged behind him as it rocked back and forth with the earth, the people below ran for the walls of his Ironwood house with the knowledge it was the least likely to fall. And then, just like that, the shaking subsided.
These quakes were becoming something that happened more and more often, the townspeople expected them at least once a month. Hans had told him that it was worse in the mine, they had lost many experienced miners to the shifting of the rock.
"Father?! Are you there? Are you ok?" a concerned voice rose from the bottom of the belltower.
Burton stepped to the top of the stairs, leaning over to see his son looking up.
"I'm fine Elias, the belltower is one of the strongest structures in the town, you know this."
He began his descent, careful of his footing. He was not the young man who had found this town so long ago, and he knew that a fall at this point could see dire complications for his lifestyle. Elias waited patiently and dutifully at the bottom for him.
Burton sat at the table with Elias, dinner was something sacred to the small family. Elias's presence in his life had created an unexpected change, the child had grown up with stories of his father's kindness (regardless of the truth of that story) and he looked up to him. This innocent belief had stirred something in his soul, and while he hadn't changed his ways entirely it was a belief he was terrified of betraying. And thus, he made time for his son whenever he could.
"Father, have you thought through my proposition?" Elias asked.
Burton tried to hide the sigh that he involuntarily made as the topic came up again.
"We have been through this son, we can't leave Deeprun."
"Have you walked through the town recently?" Elias countered. "The inn was just repaired from the last shake, and one of the supporting walls fell today. The missive that came through said almost a dozen patrons were killed!"
"That's exactly why we must stay. Without leadership, someone to help them rebuild, this town would fall apart."
"But father, The Grief is spreading to more and more people. The baker came down with it this morning and he hasn't even been in the mines."
"That's the church's business. They have been treating the disease for the last decade or so, and I have faith that they will find the final answer we have been looking for."
"It's just I… I worry about you," Elias admitted. "You're not as young as you once were and of all the people in this town you have been here the longest. What if something happens to you?"
Burton smiled at his heir, the display of concern touching.
"I know. But where else would we go? Deeprun town is my legacy, without it I would be nothing."
"Surely not, you have done so much for this community and you have the money to start again! We could take what ore we can and I can start my own blacksmith. We could move out to where the ore is rare, and we could stand out there."
Burton's eyes passed over the room, what once had started as a hobby for his son had become something so much more. Evidence of this sat all around the room, cutlery fashioned in artistic formats, the candelabra on the mantelpiece, the statue in the centre of the dinner all fashioned by Elias. His teachers had said there was something about the child, the metal almost flowed in his hands. Elias had told him the ore spoke to him of other times, it knew what it wanted to be and what it wanted to represent.
There were other things, darker things, the ore had said to him. Elias rarely talked about it, the first time he had a dark mood had filled Burton and the topic hadn't come up often after that. The ore cried, it screamed, it begged for release.
"Son, I am more than happy to fund your blacksmith ventures here in Deeprun, but I truly can't leave. I cannot return to being no one. And I can't lose you either. Please?"
A pregnant pause. An awkward moment. The conversation always ended this way. Burton knew that there was nothing he could do to change his son's position, and he knew this wouldn't be the last time he had to admit that.
"Father, we have to leave!" Elias begged, frustration tinging his voice.
The daily quakes had gotten worse, the town was in shambles. A corpse of what it once was, the only people who stayed were those that couldn't afford to leave. The church sat empty, the clergy had declared that the tree that dominated the sky was too holy for man to be so close to and left weeks ago. Mining had stopped months ago, too dangerous to continue.
Through all of this, Elias could not convince his father to leave and he could not understand why. There was no one left here to help. There was nothing left to oversee. But yet Elias, a man in his own right, could not convince his elderly father to travel to somewhere safer.
The cracks that had spread through the town, travelling from the ridge around the caldera, were creating chasms that buildings had toppled into. Entire streets had been lost in the last few days, and yet the old man still wouldn't agree to leave. Elias worried that perhaps he would have to leave without him, but he wasn't willing to without exhausting all options.
Burton stood at the window, facing away from him, his expression in shadow. This is how he spent most of his time at this point, which worried Elias to no end. He had tried talking to his father about his suspicions but Burton refused to admit the truth.
The Grief had finally reached him.
"No son, I must stay, there's still so much to do that cannot be left undone."
Elias reached out and took his father by the shoulder, and as the elderly man turned towards him the truth once again showed itself. The old man's eyes shone with fervour, with a hunger that could not be fulfilled.
"Father, the town is collapsing. In the last few days most of the west quarter has fallen into the chasms and the next quake will probably spell the end of Deeprun."
"Ah but son, the town will never collapse while we sit under the grace of the Deadwood God," the old man replied, turning back to his view of the tree. "The roots, they spread throughout the city! They will keep it all together. All the tree needs is more metal, to shore up its strength."
Elias looked at his father, his eyes betraying the realisation that had hit him like a punch to the gut. This was it, there was no way he could convince him otherwise. The next time the quakes began he had to leave this god cursed town.
As if summoned by his thoughts, the dull rumbling began again.
As they both watched, the blacksmith across the street, once Elias's pride and joy, began to slowly topple. A crack raced across the centre of the street, cobblestones popping under the pressure of something deep beneath the earth. With his workplace now gone there was nothing keeping Elias here anymore. Nothing but his father.
Burton's face looked horrified.
"No… no no no no," he muttered. "This shouldn't be happening. The tree, it just needs more… metal."
With speed that the elderly man's body long since lost, he fled out the door and began stumbling towards the gate to the abandoned caldera. Elias rushed out to stop his father, but before he could close the distance the widening crack caused the next house to collapse. The ruined building spilled its interior across the street and as Elias watched, the crack split and pulled the building into the ground.
He stared across the gap, his father disappearing behind a wall of dust and debris. There was nothing he could do for the old man now.
With a breaking heart, Elias ran the other way in an effort to escape the town.
Burton rushed out to the remains of the mine, having cleared the gate just before its collapse. The ground was treacherous, something that he would have been careful of if his mind was not consumed by a burning need, a desire, to keep feeding the tree. His steps were certain, fueled by a belief that the world would sort out how he was to reach his goal.
He reached the edge of the pit that once led deep into the earth, and while the entrance had long collapsed he still moved to where it once stood with sureness. The edges of the pit still showed the skeleton of the industry which once stood here, beams criss-crossed along the edges of the decline supporting his pathway down. Ladders that should have collapsed with age had been fashioned with Ironwood and stood the test of time with ease.
Even with this support, the earth here was rent with scars. Cracks covered the floor and walls of the old mine, showing glimpses over underground with the telltale glitter of the red ore buried deep. These views only spurred on the old man, as he stumbled and climbed down to the bottom of the pit.
Arriving at the old entrance, Burton's face filled with dismay as he took in the remains of the once heavily reinforced tunnel. The beams stood there still, but the earth had not cared, falling around the wood and filling in the spaces that men had once carved. He fell to his knees in front of the rocks, and his wails of anguish echoed across the vast expanse that had once been his personal paradise.
His head drooped, tears falling to the dirt beneath him. As if taunting him, the salty water washed the dust away revealing scatterings of the ore that impregnated the hard packed earth. His eyes gleaming, and with the same manic energy that had consumed him previously, he dug. His finger's rigid, he scraped at the ground. Nails chipping, skin tearing, it did not matter. He needed the metal.
And with a loud crack, the ground gave way.
He awoke in pain. A dull, slow thumping filled his ears, a deep constant pulse that screamed in his head. He was deep under the mine, much deeper than they had ever dug before. His body was shattered, bones broken and his lungs felt full of fluid. A single root sat in front of him piercing through from his back and through his chest. Looking up, he saw the ground had opened up, with the walls of the chamber reaching to the edge of the caldera. But what caught his eye hung in the centre of the rent earth.
A rough sphere of orichalcum, glowing with unearthly light. Roots, too numerous to count, spread from the walls and embedded themselves in the glowing metal. And it pulsed slowly, with a start Burton realised this was the thumping that filled his body.
A thunderous crack filled the chamber, as the ore split down the middle. It fell, the two halves hitting the ground in front of him with a crunch.
A beating heart stood there, roots driving into the soft flesh, blood pouring to the ground and pooling in the remains of its shell. A strong metallic tang filled Burton's nose, somehow stronger than the smell of his own blood dribbling down his chest.
And then the thumping stopped.
Burton looked up at the organ of godly proportions. The glow that had emanated from it increased, and soon he felt burning at the back of his eyes as the light seared into his brain. He barely registered the noise as it ripped apart, before he knew no more.
Elias stood on the hill, one over from town. He had just reached the edge of the deadtree's domain, and the feeling of sunlight on his skin felt alien to him. Hearing the collapse of the mine he had stopped to see what had happened, and secretly he had hoped to see some sign of his father following. Yet, all he could see was a glow painting the side of the dead tree with a sickly red.
The dull thump of something echoed across the area, and Elias swore he could hear something else under it. It was like a memory, an echo of something long since past, and it was screaming distantly in his mind.
As he watched, the glow grew. The tree seemed to drink it in, filled it with life that he had never seen in the town's dead companion. And then the light screamed into the heavens in a thick beam of red.
In the moment before the shockwave reached his, Elias saw the solid light tear into the town, into the tree itself. Fragments of buildings and dead wood seemed to cease to exist as the light ate away at everything in the area. As he stood too shocked to move, the wall of force hit him, throwing him back into a tree and knocking him out cold.
The town of Deeprun slowly became a story told to children, a warning that neither the listeners nor the story teller exactly understood. The monarchy warned that no one should approach the ruins of the town, that the earthquake that spelt its demise left the area unstable. But still, people would sometimes risk it all for relics. Over the years following small parties would attempt to climb down into the crater that was left in order to plunder the remains. Some returned, most didn't. They were all warned.
Standing at the edge of the crater is a small house. A hermit lives there, a hermit who has the strange habit of not touching metal. Those passing through often offer him supplies, knives and the like to make surviving out here easier, but he refuses. This rejection of metal is absolute, apart from a single artifact that he retrieved from the one and only trip he made to his old home. He watches the walls of the crater, and warns all that try to reach the bottom of what happened here.
Wild stories of god cursed buildings, of metal that bleeds, of the remains of something deep under the earth. While some turn away at these warnings, most do not, but it does not stop him from warning them every time. His stories are declared to be heresy by the church, but no representatives approach to stop him.
For the most part, travellers avoid the area. The tales of the curse are told in taverns and inns, songs of Burton Harrison and his attempt to sell the profane.
The area is not marked on any maps, but everyone knows where it sits. Those passing too close hear the warning of the deep tolling of the bell that sits on the hermit's house. The only sign of a paradise lost.