Cloudhawk was here in the asshole of nowhere because that’s where Adder’s intelligence said the Dark Atom was hiding. Even with a map and directions, though, he still got lost.
Whatever. No matter how detailed a map was just a piece of paper. He was a creature of three dimensions, so a paper wasn’t going to give him accurate instructions on where to go.
The Blisterpeaks were as complicated and inhospitable as they came. No roads or buildings served as landmarks, so it would be difficult for anyone to find where they were going even with a map. Adder said he dispatched several people but none returned, and it seemed likely they’d died out here. Lost, like him.
Thankfully, Cloudhawk had Oddball’s help. The bird gave him an overview of the area that matched the map closer, but it was a laborious process. Despite his efforts, so far the Dark Atom’s headquarters remained hidden. Instead he found this… person. He called himself Coal. His body shape was humanoid but he was definitely not normal. Highly mutated would be a generous description.
He looked more like a living boulder. One of his arms was thicker than Cloudhawk’s waist.
Coal was about three meters tall, and hairless from scalp to sole. He didn’t wear a stitch of clothing, but his skin was more like a stony shell, equivalent to several layers of sturdy armor. It was a sort of saffron hue, pitted and cragged, with scars in various places. If he stayed still he might easily be mistaken for a boulder.
His stony skin was different from other mutants as well. Very distinctive.
A unique characteristic of the Volcano Tribe was the natural shell that covered them. It was a special mutation developed from generations out here in this highly irradiated, high-heat environment. From birth their skin began to secrete a substance that hardened over time to protect them.
Members of the Volcano Tribe also had a robust digestive system. They subsisted off carbon and any other natural minerals they came across. In particular, they preferred items rich in energy and highly radioactive. Not only did it make them stronger, but any excess was stored in them for use over the long term.
Year after year, day after day, the skin of these mutants hardened into a shell.
At first glance, Coal’s skin was almost indistinguishable from rock, but it was actually harder than elysian tungsten steel. That was proven when Cloudhawk couldn’t break through it with two hits from his staff and a shot from his bow. All he got was a yelp of pain.
Coal’s skin protected him from pretty hefty blows. As one might imagine, it was just as effective in protecting him from the heat. Cloudhawk watched him walk through fuckin’ lava.
His mouth and eye sockets were unique, too. A sturdy membane protected him from volcanic ash and blasts of heat. Mutants out here had developed incredible ways to survive out here among these broken mountains.
Certainly an eye-opening discovery. If someone would have told him a creature this highly mutated was out here somewhere, Cloudhawk would have laughed them off.
Coal was strong – real strong. He’d punched a goddamn hole in the floor three meters deep. Most anyone would be flattened by a punch like that, even the old drunk would have suffered terribly. Such incredible constitution reminded him of his fight against the Caliph, and how tough his skin had been.  Even without the powers of a demonhunter, Coal could probably use brute force to exert his will in most places around the wastelands.
But all through his life Coal had never left his mountain range. He knew hardly anything at all about the outside world, and seemed timid when confronted by it. Especially after feeling what Cloudhawk could do, Coal had become frightened of the people from the outside. He had wanted so much to see the paradise that waited out there, but he put the idea aside. Maybe after another four or five years he would consider it again.
Cloudhawk had prepared a number of things in his special storage space before leaving on this journey. Much of the things he pulled out for Coal were things the giant had never seen. Cloudhawk produced them as though by magic, a wondrous feat as far as Coal was concerned. Uncooked, the meat he offered would have been hard to swallow even for Cloudhawk. But for Coal, whose people were fond of rock and volcanic glass, it was the most amazing thing he’d ever tasted.
Coal’s round, boulder-like face bore was eager and expectant. In halting English, he jabbered on for a long time. As far as Cloudhawk could gather, it was about how great the outside world must be and how much he envied Cloudhawk for being lucky enough to live out there.
The Warden was understandably surprised by his new friend’s praise. He was always taken aback when he found someone who actually wanted to live in the hell hole he came from.
But looking around, Cloudhawk could understand why the mutant would feel the way he did. Lucky and unlucky were always relative. You might think a man with three square meals was lucky. But even someone with only enough food to keep him alive felt lucky sometimes, for there were those who were sick and dying, or missing arms and legs.
It was all a matter of perspective. Cloudhawk mulled over the revelation for a time.
Coal polished off five whole sides of beef before his belly was satisfied. He didn’t understand why the chief said outsiders were bad. This one wasn’t. He shared delicious food, and sat and spoke with him for a long time. It’d been such a long time since he’d spoken with anyone…
“I’m looking for someplace. A lava waterfall. Do you know anywhere like that?”
Afraid his companion wouldn’t understand, Cloudhawk gesticulated dramatically with his arms while he talked. Coal understood but knew of no such place. He indicated thick by awkwardly scratching his rock-like head with his finger. The scratching sound it produced made Cloudhawk wince.
“You don’t know, eh?”
Coal thought for a minute, then something occurred to him. “Ch…. Chief!”
After a pause, Cloudhawk pressed him. “You mean your chief might know?”
That was exactly what Coal was thinking. He lumbered to his feet and trudged away, Cloudhawk trailing after. A few minutes later they came to the base of one of the volcanoes where a gorge had formed. Inside was an unassuming, spartan village set up in the lava caves. A black semi-fluid substance flowed all around, oxidized lava.
Cloudhawk could feel the heat and radiation all around them. This place was choked full of it. It made him actually itch. He figured it would only be a matter of time before anyone out here would become mutated.
Due to the inhospitable and environment and sparse resources, one couldn’t imagine a sizable population being supportable. The fact that anything survived out here was a miracle of life. Living out here was like walking on thin ice, always inches from disaster. If you weren’t quick enough on your feet, you would perish. Both the volcanoes situated on either side of the village constantly oozed streams of red lava. Plumes of smoke rose above, and from time to time it would belch a massive cloud of toxic fumes. The fiery mountains here were all still very much active, and very dangerous.
As they approached, Cloudhawk spotted more members of the Volcano Tribe. They were quite a bit smaller than Coal – two meters or so. Their crusts were thinner and not as complete as his, either. Truth be told, the discovery was a relief to Cloudhawk. If they were all like his friend, here, what a terrifying race they would be.
To them, Cloudhawk was like a completely alien species.
They poked their heads out from their rocky dwellings as he passed, looking at him like he was some kind of monster. It was a strange sensation to suddenly be the center of attention for a bunch of mutants, and still feel like you were the freak.
Cloudhawk pulled more food from his phase stone and passed it out to the natives. After some trepidation they tried it, and the flavor was met with great delight.
It was like these poor folks had never tasted something tender in their whole lives. When had they ever had a chance to see elysian-made weapons and tools? More villagers came trundling over with excited yelps to see what was happening.
Coal was practically giddy. To him, Cloudhawk’s arrival was life a miracle, a gift from the gods. How else was this young outsider able to produce so much delicious food from nowhere?
From the village center another villager came, this one covered in jet black rocky skin. Among these mutants, age was best determined by how dark their shell was. Coal’s was a sort of reddish-orange, bright and vibrant. He had to be younger. The man who walked toward them now – covered in chips and gouges, even missing an arm, a dent in his skull – his skin was black as night. He had to be some sort of village elder.
“Young man, how you find this place?”
Unexpectedly, the chief was almost a master of Cloudhawk’s language. He spoke ten times more fluently than Coal’s broken attempts. He sized up Cloudhawk with a guarded and vigilant expression.
“I’m looking for a city hidden in a volcano.”
Cloudhawk’s words came as some surprise to the chief. Among his people there was a legend that spoke of a prosperous city below the Blisterpeaks. It was supposed to be an incredible city of abundance, able to feed tens of thousands. But it was only a legend. If such a place existed, the people of his tribe would have found it years ago.
Cloudhawk continued. “According to what I know, the entrance is hidden behind a waterfall of lava. If Ican find this waterfall, maybe I can find a way in to the city.”
“Lava waterfall...” The old chief thought for a few minutes. “That could be...”
When Cloudhawk saw the spark in the chiefs eye he grabbed at the opportunity. “You know a place like that?”
The chief’s face was solemn and stern. “That is home of Magmesa, our god. Volcano dwellers cannot go near, or we are punished.”
Coal stood by, listening. He stepped forward at this point to interrupt the chief, speaking a few words in a language Cloudhawk could not understand. But to look at Coal, Cloudhawk might guess he didn’t have much respect for ‘Magmesa,’ maybe even some hostility.
What were so many gods doing kicking around, anyway? He didn’t think there were really any gods living in a place as shitty as this.
Cloudhawk pushed back into the conversation. “I don’t care about any volcano god. I need to get into that city. If anything gets in my way, no matter what it is, I will cut it down. I hope you will be able to point me toward where I need to go, chief. What I need has nothing to do with you or your people. It’s my own problem to solve.”
A god? We've met demons but no god yet. Wonder what this one is like!