To the south-west of Skycloud was a place their maps referred to only as ‘no man’s land.’
Out in that stretch of the wilds, ninety-five percent of all living things were mindless hunters, beasts killing for survival. There was nothing unique about that, but there was a reason for its special designation.
It was home to the Blisterpeak mountain range. 
As its name implied, the Blisterpeaks were a treacherous area. It stretched a hundred kilometers and boasted a hundred active volcanoes. Every day a dozen of them erupted with varying intensity. Scouring heat and deadly magma were intrinsic features. It was a hellscape of blackened ground, and the air was choked with toxic ash. So thick was the gushing smoke from these volcanoes that it blotted out the sky and turned the Blisterpeaks into a lifeless expanse.
Yet, even with a name like ‘no man’s land,’ this inhospitable place was not uninhabited. What sort of people could survive in an environment like this?
Life was tenacious, and stubborn. From seething fissures, to baked deserts, to ice-covered tundra life eked out a way. Somehow it managed the impossible and adapted where no life should be possible.
Out among the Blisterpeaks, deep among its peaks and valleys, were a tribe that have so far remained unknown to the rest of the world. They were a small group – several hundred only. It was impossible to know how long these people and their ancestors have lived here, only that this had been the land of their people since the old stories.
Coal was one of them.
Any living creature would need to adapt to live here, and humans were no exception. Their skin had thickened to deal better with the intense heat, and their noses had mutated to filter toxic dust from the air. In times of extreme famine they could subsist off charcoal and other minerals. Heat from the volcanoes were swallowed up inside them and converted into vital energy.
The elders always said they were normal humans. But to anyone from the outside, they would undeniably be considered mutants. Coal didn’t know what a mutant was, of course. Really, he didn’t know what defined someone as ‘human’, either.
Their old tribal leader was the most knowledgeable among them. He had once traveled the burning fields and the smoke-filled chasms all across their territory, experiencing the dangers of the outside world for himself. Once, the chief had even shared his experience with Coal. He said it was like another world out beyond the Blisterpeaks.
The air wasn’t poisonous, he said. There were no volcanoes constantly threatening destruction, and the earth did not quake as though in a constant rage. He told Coal that the sun burned unmasked, shining upon vast tracts of cool sand. Fresh, tender things grew up from the ground that you could eat, you need only pluck them for yourself. And meat – lots and lots of meat for the taking.
It sounded impossible to Coal. He had always thought the whole world was endless fields of lava, just like his home.
The old chief’s tales filled Coal with a yearning. It had been three years since he last found a plant to eat. Meat? There was some in the mountains, rare creatures like fire salamanders, but the chief always turned his nose up at those things. He said their bodies were foul, sour, toxic. Out there beyond the mountains, the meat was sweet and nourishing.
“If the outside world is so nice, why did you come back?”
The old chief’s body was a map of scars. He’d lost his left arm at some point, and something had smashed part of his head flat. When Coal asked the question his battered face fell, and he was silent for a long time. Eventually he took a deep sigh and spoke.
“Coal. Out in the world there is something dangerous. More dangerous than the magma earthquakes, worse than fire salamanders, harder to see through than the ash clouds. Do you know what this is?”
Coal shook his head, to which the old man lifted a gnarled finger and pointed it at his chest.
Coal did not understand his elder’s meaning at first, but when he asked the old chief said that the outside world was filled with evil men. To them, Coal and his people were like monsters. If they were not strong enough to defend themselves, they would be taken away.
This explained the elder’s many wounds, Coal observed.
A decision was made in Coal’s heart, then. He would train, become strong, so that no one could trouble him. He wanted to be like the old chief, traveling far to the outside world so he could feel the sun on his skin and eat his fill of delicious food. It was decided; no matter how hard, or how much effort was needed, he would see his wish granted.
Coal lived down near a volcanic lake. From birth his tough skin could survive a brief touch with the lava, but now after training he could stand immersed in it for two whole breaths – then three, then five, then ten. Eventually that grew to twenty or thirty breaths without any harm coming to him.
But protecting himself from being burned wasn’t enough. His body needed to be strong, fast, and agile.
Coal had grown naturally into one the of tribe’s strongest men. He was able to pick up an object big as himself and throw it clear across the lake. But still he was not satisfied. Through training the objects grew to twice his size, then three times – five times as large and as heavy as himself, thrown just as far. Every day he became stronger.
No one else in the tribe was his equal.
But his kin thought him mad. Eventually they refused to deal with him at all.
Coal did not lose heart. It only pushed him further away. He no longer spent time with his people, training instead with every available moment. His body grew stronger than ever, able to stand in the middle of an erupting volcano’s spray, or wade through the lava lake and eat the fire salamanders on the other side.
No concept of time existed for Coal. His life was training, day in and day out. Each time he thought of leaving his mind would turn to what the chief said, and he would return to his grueling regimen.
Until that day.
Coal found a fire salamander’s nest and stole in for a meal. But there were no lizards, instead there was something else he’d never seen before. It was alive, like a salamander, but different. It was scavenging around, digging through the ash and comparing things it found. Clearly it was a creature of some intelligence.
Coal had seen nothing like it. It was new, interesting. He crept closer to try and get a better look. It wasn’t very large, about his own size, with black coarse hair sprouting from its head. It’s skin was fair, soft… rather like the stories the chief used to tell.
The creature realized Coal was standing there, nearby. Just as Coal was mesmerized by the strange thing, Coal’s own hulking frame froze it stiff. It recovered and pulled out a tool, something like a bow though there were no arrows. But when the creature pulled back on the string and release, a shooting beam of light struck him in the chest.
Once Coal trained his body to tread lava, no creature had caused him this much pain. When the strange beast pulled back the string for a second shot, Coal was afraid. He curled his fingers into a fist and prepared to strike back.
His enormous fist slammed into the ground, leaving behind a crater several meters deep. Yet when he pulled his hand back the nasty beast that stung him wasn’t there.
Behind. Coal tried to turn around but he wasn’t fast enough. The creature had a stick with it too, thick and black, which it used to whack against his body. Coal reeled backward from the strength of it, filled with fear and surprise. This was all knew, unexpected. The blows of this tiny creature hurt terribly. Flee. That was the only thought in his mind.
Desperately he swung his palm to swat at the smaller thing. It struck rocky ground, sending shards of rock into the air, but not the creature. It split apart into many more creatures that looked just the same. Coal kicked and punched and slapped, not knowing which way to turn.
The outsider with the black fur brought its stick down on Coal’s head so hard he thought he might fall over. He clutched his head and cried out for mercy in his people’s tongue.
Hearing his wailing cries, the creature stopped in confusion. It put away its terrible weapon and warbled something.
“What sort of creature are you? A mutant? Can you speak?”
Coal paused. Those weren’t words from his language. This was… the language of the outside, that the chief had taught him.
Coal struggled to remember what he was taught. He could understand a fair amount, but speaking was hard. He did the best he could. “Coal no fight… Coal! No fight!”
It was a misunderstanding!
Cloudhawk had found the awful mountain range by following Adder’s map. When he turned around and saw the giant sneaking up on him he thought he was being attacked. Only terrible monsters could possibly live in a nightmare expanse like this. Cloudhawk, true to his nature, attacked first before asking questions. He was surprised to find that the giant was tough, like mountain tough. It took a shot from his bow and two blows from the exorcist rod to make the critter hurt. But he didn’t see any wounds.
Was this thing supposed to be human?
If he was to judge by appearance alone, the thing looked more like a demon.
Cloudhawk struggled to communicate with it, eventually learning that he called himself Coal. The Warden was here looking for the Dark Atom, but the mountain range was tricky and easy to get turned around in. He was getting ready to retrace his steps when he ran into one of the Blisterpeaks’ natives.
Coal came to know that this creature was an outsider, just like the ones the chief spoke about. He was excited, but nervous. He wasn’t sure how to properly treat his new guest, so he did what he thought best. Coal charged through the lake of lava to snatch up a fire salamander hatching. It was some of the best fair available in the Blisterpeak ranges.
When Cloudhawk saw him jump and walk through it like nothing his jaw almost hit the floor. What the actual fuck was this guy made of?! Thousands of degrees of heat and he was wading through it like a goddamn hot spring!
Coal presented Cloudhawk with the salamander, riddled with oozing poison glands.
Was this thing even edible? His stomach could be made of cast iron and he wouldn’t be able to handle this thing’s rotten meat. The poison coursing through it would lay him out, no question, but the mutant seemed to love it.
Cloudhawk shook his head, then produced a hunk of beef and tossed it his way. “Try this.”
Coal looked at the fresh chunk of meat with wide, captivated eyes. Fresh… food? He’d never seen the like, but he was not worried. He and his people could eat rocks if they needed to. From the look of it the food was tasty. He tenderly snatched it up, took a tentative bite, then trembled all over from delight like a child tasting candy for the first time.
The chief wasn’t lying.
Things from the outside were even better than he imagined!
1. The name is ‘worried mountains’. ‘On tenterhooks’ is a phrase meaning to be anxious about future events. Tenterhooks also look a little like mountains. Except I’m just kidding. I translated a few chapters ahead and took another look at the characters, only to realize the word 焦灼 can mean both worried and ‘blasted’ or ‘seared’. I’m leaving this note here as an interesting example of how I can screw up. I still think Tenterhooks was clever, too.
This is the first truly 'different' sentient species we've encountered. Rather interesting, no? Reminescent of a magma golem-type creature. Alas, poor Coal, I fear his love of the 'outside world' is going to come into a crashing screech soon...
Meanwhile, CNY madness is finally over! Here are the first three chapters of the week, with six more to come in the next three days!