The MoltenKor mines were no place for a child. Yet there he was.
An orphan, he had no name. They found him hiding in one of the woodcarts, nearly frozen. It took three hours before he thawed back to life. His only possessions were his eyes, ears, hands, and legs—more than most of the miners had.
What to do with him, what to do… He was too small to chop wood, and the mild frostbite he’d suffered from hiding in the woodcart made his extremities susceptible to the Starving Frost that roamed the mountain, eating fingers and toes through gloves and boots. He was too young to log the extractions. Without a skill he would just be another mouth to feed. And a mouth that didn’t produce would be fed to the Starving Frost. So the workers started to discuss who would take this boy they named “Nothing” back out into the cold.
MoltenKor mine was divided into two camps: the criminals and the diseased. The criminals who came to camp often couldn’t find work elsewhere, or had been assigned labour at MoltenKor to work off their debt. As some were killers, it would be of little consequence for one of them to stain their hands once more, even if it was a child.
The diseased were those who had come to the Thell Mountains to make as much money as possible in what short allotment of time they had left. Whether that money was sent back to their families or to the local barkeeps was their business. Whatever guilt they incurred would not last long.
In the midst of a discussion on this (with the boy in the room), the shouting became so loud it carried all the way to the manager’s office. The man known as Hoard came to the worker’s cafeteria to see what caused the conflict. The stalactites nearly fell from the roof with the din, and so he walked over, took the boy by the hand, and started to walk him towards the exit. The workers followed.
The boy cried. The tunnels were carved into rock of a rich blue, the colour of deep water only seen by the eyes of the drowned. Hoard tightened his grip, but the child put up a fight. Hoard was a young man himself—not of the giant stature of many of the workers—but he had a quick mind, was well read, and his approach to process and structure had increased productivity tenfold. (He’d also found a way to keep some of the profits himself, and knew he would be able to escape to one of the finer floating islands on the western horizon in nearly twenty years’ time.)
Approaching the exit of the mine, Hoard made a sharp left down one of the narrower, more dangerous passages where miners were never sent without protective respiratory gear. He’s teaching us a lesson, the group that followed thought. This is what happens to those who prove themselves to be expendable. Management will lock you deep within the cavern and work you until there’s no life in you left to even chew.
In the absence of respirators, some of the workers held cloth over their mouth. In the absence of cloth, they breathed through their fingers. When they caught up, they found Hoard twisting the boy’s arm as Nothing squirmed trying to get away.
Then Hoard did the most curious thing. He sang a single note in his rich-tenor. He told the boy to sing it back. The boy tried to sing it back through his tears, but he couldn’t find the pitch, prompting Hoard to squeeze harder. “Higher. Not louder, higher!” And the boy pulled his throat tighter and higher until it hit a sweet, pubescent falsetto.
He held the note for so long he thought he might pass out. But slowly pink veins materialized in the dark blue walls, arteries stretching out throughout the tunnels. A similar coloured dust glowed on the ground and in the air. The workers backed away when they realized what it was: mefalite.
The boy stopped singing, and the branches of pink dulled back into navy.
“Looks as though I’ve found a job for you,” he said, letting go of the boy’s hand. He looked at the workers, the workers looked at one another, and most understood what it meant: they would all be very rich, very soon.
Every labourer took on a new name once they joined the Kor, and every name reflected what they had lost. (No one came to MoltenKor knowing any kind of abundance.) Hoard had once been a money lender—his closet knew every fabric, his stomach every delicacy, his jewellery every precious gem. But once it was discovered he had been stealing from his benefactors, he fled to the Thell Mountains to work off his debt and gain new riches. Others’ names, such as Fingers or Nose, had less of a backstory.
Hoard asked if the boy had a family. He was an orphan. He asked if he had a people. He said he did not know. And it was clear he had no worldly possessions.
So they called the boy Nothing, because, never having had a family, never knowing wealth, and having all his limbs, he had never known true loss.
Nothing became a favourite among the workers. He took interest in their methods. He learned to spot a vein of hoarite by rubbing animal fat along the floor, and refine the mine’s less saleable rocks into crude jewelry. He wore several necklaces around his neck until the miners started to mock him as a debutante, after which he still wore them, but made sure to hide them within his shirt, and his many bracelets underneath his cuffs. And while he was not a practiced singer, Nothing took an interest in the work songs the miners hummed from their throats as they went about with their picks and solvents, pouring acids into the cracks to loosen the walls, filling entire chambers with acrid gasses and grumbling songs.
Cave-ins were a regular occurrence, as the MoltenKor company expected extraction to occur at such a pace that safety protocols were often abandoned. Accidents with the tools led to lethal injuries. This was still preferable to dying of poisoning from the chemicals. But what Nothing hated the most were the amputations. The furnace taking a woman’s arm. A cave-in crushing several legs. Or an unforeseen rush of Starving Frost when the men were outside gathering wood, taking fingers off hands, and noses from faces. They’d come back into the mines, and their screams echoed no matter what direction from which they came. But the screaming was not from the wound, or the amputation itself, but the “cure.”
Every team captain kept several daggers covered in runes on their person. The instructions for using them were simple: Should a labourer find themselves in a situation where someone might lose a limb to frost, burns, chemical spills, or infection, they would stab the wound with the dagger, and the flesh would calcify nearly instantly. While the process was incredibly painful, the skin and exposed arteries and vesicles would turn to near stone, stopping the damage from spreading. They could then be moved to the infirmary without fear of gangrene or something worse setting in during transfer. Sometimes, rather than amputate, the petrified limb would simply fall off.
Once, a man was gathering wood outside when the Starving Frost kicked up, nearly instantly freezing his exposed ear—the one he still had. His well-meaning workmate stabbed him with one of the knives in the ear, and Nothing watched as the calcification stretched from his ear up his temple and into his eye. It was one of many instances he would see over his years in the mine.
Yes, it might have stopped the limb from freezing or decaying. But the pain remained as well. And it never ceased until the limb was removed.
Then there was the horror of mefalite. Workers who were around it too much found their bones enlarged and grew at odd angles, and their teeth multiplied in the gums. But it was when the blue halo surrounded your body that the workers knew you had little time left. They said it was your soul leaving its shell, that mefalite broke the barriers of the spirit and flesh. The semi-sentient corpse that was left could earn you a near fortune from alchemists on the black market—almost as much as the stones themselves. So it was Nothing’s job to sing, the vibrations causing the stones to glow so that they could be avoided. Or so he had thought.
One night, around the time Nothing had grown old enough to hold a pickaxe, Hoard called him into his office, the light from the fire dying as the embers dimmed.
“Since your arrival we’ve been making a map. One we don’t report on.” He shifted in his chair and offered a Nothing a drink from his flagon of stovemouth.
It was the first alcohol Nothing had ever tasted. The warmth of its spices filled his mouth, then his stomach.
“I have a guild of alchemists who want our mefalite. And they want a quantity that could pay off the debts and support the families of every miner in the Thell Mountains for a generation. The veins we’ve found aren’t the right quality, but each leads to the motherlode, a deposit deep in the mountain. And that’s where you come in. And Nothing, I would not tell you this if I didn’t trust you. But you are far smarter than many of the miners could ever hope to be.”
Hoard looked directly Nothing’s eyes in a way that held Nothing up by the shoulders, straightened his back, pushed out his chest.
“Nothing, it would be one thing to say you are so capable that you never have to live this existence if you don’t want it. And it would be true. But more than that, you can use your brilliance to save many of these people. And those who are capable must hold this burden.”
And hearing that, for the first time in his cold existence, Nothing felt like a person.
Hoard continued, and Nothing followed along with his plan—a hole would be cut in the outer wall of the mountain. The wind of the Starving Frost would pass through the hole like breath through the mouthpiece of a flute. From the opening they would attach brass pipes, creating a network that would travel along the caverns, carrying the note, activating as much of the mefalite as possible. Activate enough veins, and the motherlode at the heart would surely rebound the signal throughout the rock, announcing its presence deep within the chest of the mountain. And it would be up to Nothing to follow that rebound down the tunnels they had not yet marked.
At every step of the plan, Hoard explained exactly how Nothing would fit in. Nothing learned for the first time how Hoard had hidden him from the executives of the mine, the pains he had taken to make sure he was protected. Nothing had always thought he had ceased to exist to Hoard as soon as he left the room. But he had always been the man that saved him from the cold, taught him to sing. Nothing did not know what to do with these feelings. He thought of crying. Of hugging Hoard. But he only sat, listening intently, desperate for the conversation to never end.
“Do you understand?” Hoard said. “This is very dangerous work. But everyone in the mine will need you to do what’s dangerous. This bounty could be enough to free them.”
And Nothing nodded, knowing he would never let Hoard down.
It is years later in a place as far removed from the cold of the Thell Mountains as possible: the floating mountain of Summit, bathed in warm sunlight. On its peak rests the city of Sparkstone, miraculous in its inventions and wealth. And within this city, there is a building with a room in which all who seek to join the College of Inventors must meet with a judiciary committee. The judiciary committee is gathered, and the applicants are silent, scared, all except one.
He is older than any of the pimple-faced youths gathered in hope of being admitted, but also fitter than most. He is known as being an exemplary scholar, the top of his class. He is quiet, and can somehow afford to live in the Castle district. But he is most recognizable for his left arm: the colour and texture of slate. One need only to see it to know that he is the one they called the Greyhand, first as an insult, but with growing respect.
“Prospect #14,532, enter the judiciary hall.”
Greyhand stands, walking with a militant stride to the doors through which many of his future colleagues had been admitted.
“Not that room. Down the hall. In private lecturium 7-A.”
Greyhand stares into the room, where the instructors sit, laughing with one another. He turns and walks down the hallway to a room with massive doors. He wonders if this is the correct hall, as it’s seemingly secluded. He opens the doors and enters to find a woman sitting at a small desk which has obviously been moved in from a different room. In the corner there is a hearth, but it holds no fire. Only ash.
The windows stands three storeys tall. Sunlight falls on the marble pillars lining the room, casting shadows on the marble floor, and his grey skin. He shifts his arm into the shade.
“Well…” says the bespectacled older woman in the centre table. She is regarded as one of the brightest researchers of the College: intimidatingly smart, and curious to the point of concern—to her friends as much as her enemies. Her students refer to her only as Grand Scholar Brightling, though her friends call her Pavina. “A pleasure to finally meet you, Greyhand. Is that the name you wish to be addressed by?”
Greyhand nods, mildly surprised by the courtesy of the question. He has seldom been offered the respect of choice since he reclaimed the name from those who had used it to insult him.
She flips through her paperwork at the desk, inviting Greyhand to sit. He moves towards the desk, but remains standing.
“An interesting moniker. I took special interest in your work. I had no idea hoarite was such an interesting alchemical mineral. And you know, you can always tell which students truly love their work. They know it so very personally, so very painfully, like it’s a part of them.” She leans back in her chair, removing her glasses, and gives Greyhand a soft smile. “Judging by what I see on the assessments, it’s clear that you are beyond qualified to join the College of Inventors. Congratulations.”
Greyhand relaxes. “Thank you. It is an honour. I will be sure to—”
“But, first, I require some slight clarification,” she says. “I found some inconsistencies, all very normal, with some of the information you reported regarding your past. You’re likely to hear that I take my vetting process a little more seriously than some of the other professors.” She shifts her papers. “For instance, during initial examinations of your arm—”
“I can assure you it will not hold me back from serving under—”
“You’d do well to never interrupt your superior,” she says, with a stare as hard as a hammer.
The room goes quiet. No sound even issues from the hall. They are completely alone.
She continues. “I have no doubt as to your capability, and in any event, I judge my students by what they can do, not what they can’t. My question regards the history of your injury. During initial examinations, you informed us that you received the wound during military service, and used one of the now-illegal necromantic scalpels to keep the limb. However, speaking with past officers of the third division, with whom you supposedly served, they reported that the scalpels were largely sold off to independent buyers before their sale was made illegal as well. While many were destroyed, a large majority were sold to a mining company, MoltenKor. Are you familiar with the name?”
“Yes,” he says. His response is careful, considered. “I know the MoltenKor mining company. They provided many resources for my research on hoarite that I submitted for my application to the College.”
“Interesting. We also know that, during the procurement of a large shipment of mefalite, several alchemists were caught buying the contraband. They came forward with information regarding the one who sold them the mineral. They couldn’t give a name, but they said he had an intimate knowledge of where it came from. A geological expert who wore long gloves that covered his whole arm.”
Here Greyhand stiffens.
“The only place on record that could have afforded that amount of mefalite, tainted with a number of other unique materials, including hoarite, was…” she stopped to check her paperwork. “MoltenKor Mine #628 in the Thell Mountains, which was all but abandoned following a massive excavation accident. There were no survivors in the company records. Also interesting. And did you know that the majority of the buyers within Summit were, shall we say, known to the College of Inventors?”
“If you intend on arresting me,” says Greyhand, “I fail to see the necessity in continuing this questioning.”
Pavina doesn’t blink at the directness of his reply, though she senses that Greyhand is taut as a cocked crossbow. She does not reach for the weapon at her side. She stares into him. Greyhand does not act. If anything, he seems resigned to being found out.
“Go check that there are no listeners lingering outside the door. Then come and sit. And this time, you will sit.”
Greyhand watches Pavina, waiting for the trap to spring. But nothing comes. If anything, a tension that had been there from the beginning of the interview disappears. He walks to the door, checks the hallway outside, then closes it. He walks back to the desk, easing back the meager wooden chair and sits, pulling himself up to the desk, and placing his arm in plain view next to her papers.
It’s now Pavina who looks tense. “What I’m about to tell you will be in fair trade for what I have learned about you smuggling mefalite. You deserve to know why I’m so interested in you, and why I’ll vouch for your application given what I know.” She takes a breath, holds it, and then releases with what seems like the weight of years. “I’m undertaking some research in a field for which the college will label me a heretic. I’m a researcher; I know nothing of contraband. But I know something of forbidden knowledge, and this research will require gathering some well-guarded items. In short, I require someone of your talents. Someone who can understand the importance of research, but has a somewhat… broader view of what the purpose of the college truly is.”
Greyhand nods. “Am I to assume that refusing will lead to my incarceration.”
“I don’t know,” Pavina says. “I am still deciding what to make of you. But should you ever betray my confidence, yes, you will be inside a dungeon so fast you’ll wonder if a Riftkeeper jumped you there.”
“Then I suppose you should congratulate me for being accepted into the college.”
“Not so quickly,” Pavina says. “I prefer to start a working relationship with something less formal than signing a College admission. You know, learn about the person a little.”
“You already know I’m a liar. What would you hope to learn by asking me to tell the truth?”
“You’d be surprised how often a lie will tell you more about a person than their truth,” Pavina says. The two smile at one another. It’s the first move in a game of chess that the two would come to truly appreciate. “Why do you want to join the College?”
Greyhand’s smile faded. “I’m very intent on telling you anything you’d like to know, but I hope you’ll respect that I can’t answer that question. Any others I’m willing to answer.”
Pavina considered the lines on his face. There was a life of hardness along his jaw, the way he kept himself boxed up. He held his shoulders as though he’d spent time in prison, constantly putting forward a persona that told you that being bitten, it would bite back until you were swallowed whole.
“What did you lose when the mine collapsed?”
“Again, I’m sorry, but I just don’t see how that’s pertinent to a working relationship.”
“For all I might know, you could have collapsed all that mountain on top of the others so you would keep the entirety of the hoard for yourself. You can understand why that would be a difficult relationship to negotiate.”
She expected something in him to lash out, or a new tightness to be introduced across his jaw. Instead he sagged in his seat somewhat. And he looked down at his arm. And then he started to speak.
“In my life before I joined MoltenKor, I had everything I could have ever wanted… mostly because I took it. I didn’t care who I hurt. And then one day I got caught, and everything was taken away and replaced with that MoltenKor mine, and I realized for the first time what it meant to be cold. Truly cold. And you think this would have humbled me, but it made me all the more self-interested. It’s not very honourable to steal, but it’s so much worse to steal from those who have nothing.”
“And then one day I had to make a decision. There was a boy who had snuck into camp, and I was on my way to throw him out to freeze in the barren cold when I decided to try something else. I found a role for him in the mine. I fed him, found him clothes. Watched him grow, make friends. And I became absolutely consumed by it. I didn’t just want better for him, but for everyone in the mine. So I came up with a plan to help everyone escape and live the lives they wanted. That’s how I earned this,” he says, lifting the arm of his stone hand from the table. “The pain is the same as it was the day it was exposed to the Starving Frost. None of the others survived. The pain reminds me of them.”
Pavina stares, unable to look away. She expected a game of wits, of shadows and mirrors. Instead she found the truth, or something like it.
Greyhand continues, “There are many things I can promise you… some lies, but some true. And I will tell you that I will follow what I believe to be good with everything I have. And if you question what I’m willing to sacrifice…” He places his arm back on the table, the dull thud filling in the silence.
“A very intriguing story. I can’t wait to discover if it’s sincere.”
Greyhand does not react. If anything he looks as though a weight has been lifted.
“In return, I think it’s only fair that you ask me a question.”
Greyhand scoffs. “I’ve made a career of lying. There’s nothing I could ask that I would trust.”
“I agree,” Pavina says, rifling through her papers, finding the admittance form and placing it before Greyhand. “At best, together we lead Summit and all of Axia to a new age of prosperity. At worst, we disgrace our names and doom the world. What do you have to lose?” She holds out a quill.
Greyhand pauses, considers, then takes the quill and signs. “Nothing. And I lost that already.”
Story by Caleb Caswell. Caleb is a writer from Edmonton Alberta, Canada. His writing career has taken him from cocktail reviews to developing lore bibliographies for BioWare, though he splits his current scribblings for travel writing and DMing homebrew campaigns.
Art by baimon. baimon is a Canadian illustrator whose work has appeared in Pathfinder and whose art of iconic anime, video game, and movie characters has been seen in artist alleys across North America.