Time was different in the Underneath than on the Surface. Everything was different on the Surface. There were periods of light and darkness, and they were completely natural. There were more colors. It was huge. So big that Muraad could walk and walk and walk all across the Surface and never reach the end. Stories of its grandeur and wealth were whispered all throughout the Underneath. Muraad knew all the stories perfectly. He could recite them until he lost his voice, but he never grew tired of them. Images and dreams of the Surface filled his every moment, but he didn’t actually know what the Surface was like. He had never left the Underneath which wasn’t all that surprising, considering he had only existed for a few centuries, not even close to being old enough to being around for the Banishment. Muraad wasn’t the youngest demon in the Underneath, but no one wanted to let him go to the Surface yet.
Muraad huffed as he paced up and down the jagged obsidian hallway. He never strayed too far from the door though. He rubbed his hands together and rolled his neck, preparing himself for what would be his 141th rejection. Rejection was not new to Muraad. He’d been working for the war branch for the majority of his few centuries. He continued to apply even though all he ever received was rejection. None of the older generals or specialized teams wanted any demons younger than 500 years. He knew their reasons. Ever since the wars that ended in the Banishment, their numbers plummeted. Of course, what didn’t help matters was the high number of demons needed for each team to be able to function. No one wanted to risk sending out young, inexperienced demons only for them to die and possibly bring the rest of the team with them. Muraad didn’t care.
“Muraad, is it?”
He spun around; his red scales flashed in the dim, sickly light. A tall demon with pink eyes, pristine hair, and sharp claws had opened the door. Everything about her screamed she knew something. Her voice was sharp as she said, “Come in.”
Muraad stepped inside the office. Six other demons with various animalistic characteristics filled the room. Muraad blinked and counted again. There were only six other demon, almost a complete team. One demon caught his attention. He was huge, broad, and tusks protruded from his face and sharp fangs. Muraad did not even need to ask who he was. The mark on his neck told Muraad everything he needed to know. This demon was the general in charge.
“Muraad, your name has come up a few times before,” he said, leaning against a rotting desk. Muraad held his head high. He would bear his rejection with pride, even though an active position was all he ever wanted. He would get it. He would get to the Surface by any means necessary even if it meant eliminating one of his own.
“Many of us generals dismiss your application on principle. You’re too young. There’s no sense in risking you unless you can defend yourself.”
Muraad lifted his head even higher. The scales up his arms multiplied and glistened. The general took a deep breath. “However, Rekema has convinced me otherwise this time.”
The female who had called him in stepped up to the general’s side. Muraad looked her over. Who was she? Why would she stick her neck out for him, a demon she had never met?
“Rekema argued that we need a fast replacement as we only have a short amount of time to secure our next host before our current one is… unavailable. Our seventh member is incapacitated, and we have to have seven. Rekema has pointed out your dedication to our cause as well as some impressive accomplishments despite your age. She is my lieutenant, and I value her input. So, welcome to our team, Muraad.” The general hit Muraad on the shoulder as was military custom.
Muraad bowed his head. “I will not fail you.”
“Good because we’re going to the Surface now. Our host still has some time, thanks to my magic, but it is best not to take chances. You better be ready.” The general took out a knife. He gestured to Rekema. “You can assist him, Rekema. He was your idea; you get responsibility.”
“Of course, general,” Rekema said. Her voice was smooth and rich, but just a bit lofty as well. Muraad wasn’t surprised she talked the general into letting him on the team.
Rekema took him by the arm as the other demons cut into their veins to start the ascension. Before he had the chance to speak, Rekema had taken the knife and cut into both their arms. Their black blood mixed as it dripped down onto the markings on the ground.
“Don’t let go of me,” Rekema said.
The ascension started. Muraad held onto her as though his existence depended on it. It burned, as if someone was ripping all of his scales out continuously, never ceasing. Muraad bit his tongue to keep from screaming. Someone laughed beside him.
It ended. Muraad stumbled, trying to keep a whimper from escaping. His eyes remained closed. Someone patted his head patronizingly. Rekema said, “You’ll get used to it.”
Muraad paused. He was about to see it. For the first time, Muraad would finally see the Surface. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. He groaned, covering them immediately. It was so bright. Muraad feared he would go blind if he risked another glance. He did anyway. Blinking past the brilliant light, he was assaulted with an amazing view. Gigantic brown and green plants filled his sight. He knew them: trees, but nothing he ever heard or read compared to what was before him. They were everywhere. Trees all around him for as far as he could see. Gigantic trees that stretched up and up. The branches and leaves fluttered in a small breeze. Wind. Muraad felt wind for the first time. He spun around, taking it all in. Smaller plants covered the ground. They had bright purple, blue, and red flowers and berries all over them. Muraad could finally say he had seen such bright, vivid colors. Muraad forced his eyes away from them when something else caught his eye. Something he didn’t recognize was at the base of one.
He stepped forward, eyeing it. Its head lolled to one side. It didn’t move at all. Rekema approached him. “First time seeing a host? They’re not normally like that. This one is on its last legs though, poison. The general slowed it just long enough so he can find the next one. He’s already off again, using his magic arts to get our next host.”
Muraad scrambled back to his feet and his head back. “I’ve heard so many things about the Surface. What period is this? Day surely, it’s so bright.”
“Actually, this is night time. Just wait a few hours, and you’ll get to witness something really bright.” Rekema crossed her arms. Muraad eyed her; she must be kidding. There was no way the Surface could get any brighter.
Muraad laughed, but something hollow settled in his chest. The Surface was amazing, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted to see more. There was so much more out there according to the stories. He had to see it as well. Things like mountains, deserts, rivers, oceans. He had to see everything.
“He’s found it!” One of the other demons called out. Muraad didn’t want to go. He wasn’t done looking. Rekema grabbed Muraad by the arm as they followed behind the other demons. There was no time to waste.
Muraad forced himself to look away from the world and at the demon beside him. He had to ask, “Why did you want me on this team?”
“I saw you,” Rekema said. She tossed her hair back. “I know what you did, and now you owe me, big time.”
“Why would you want that?” Muraad asked unsure of whether or not this was blackmail.
“I intend to be in charge of a team of my own someday soon, and I need demons who owe me. Demons I can rely on. Bloodthirsty, ruthless demons. I want you to be my lieutenant when that time comes.” Rekema didn’t even spare him a glance.
“What if I don’t agree?” Muraad grabbed her shoulder, forcing her to look at him.
She smirked and shook her head. “I just single-handedly got you everything you ever thought you wanted. I saw your face when you were looking around the Surface. You’ve been trying for centuries to get up and here, and it’s amazing. It’s great, but there was a moment, just a moment. This isn’t the story of how you were finally satisfied by seeing the Surface. This isn’t the end; this is just the beginning your desires. You’ll always want more and more and more, and I’m here to provide.”
“If you get me what I want, I’ll follow you unconditionally,” Muraad said.
Rekema hit him on the shoulder. “I’ll hold you to that.”
Muraad watched her as they walked. He always thought his first time on the Surface would be about finally getting satisfaction. He realized that was wrong; Rekema was right. It wasn’t enough. He wanted so much more. The story of his first time on the Surface had always been about his partnership with Rekema. She was going to go places, and he was more than happy to fall in behind her. He would never have to dream about what he desired ever again.