Asylum angrily tore a map of Solkin in two when she saw it in the drawer of her desk, the way you might swat a fly. It depicted a battle plan to rescue the inhabitants of six villages across the Grandian countryside. It was a plan that was foiled, by the Suntouched.
Beneath that map was a diagram of the streets of Castiron, where a magic circle would be drawn to teleport the city into an ambush by the Army of Below, so the city could be raided and rescued from the coming doom of the Void Lands. Asylum snapped her fingers and the diagram vanished in a cloud of purple smoke. It was a plan that was foiled, by the Suntouched.
She searched yet another drawer, wherein lied a leather-bound notebook she’d bought at a stationary store in Dol Belvargamar. She stabbed it through with a knife. Inside the notebook were her plans for the Army of Below’s greatest stand, at Castle Belvont, the Grandian capital. It was foiled by the forces of Grandia and Dol Belgargamar, led by the Suntouched.
She slammed the drawer with a fierce growl. She would just have to do without the transcription she sought.
The Suntouched was dead. It was possible that she had killed him. The sword Expanse, which had a blade with the texture and depth of the night sky, complete with constellations and other celestial bodies, thrummed continuously as it levitated a few feet above the floor of her sterile, white office. It was important to keep it close to her, for safe keeping. To look upon it reminded her that there was nothing in her way now. That the Below would be a success and that Solkin would be saved. It also reminded her that her closest friend, maybe her only friend, was dead. Even from beyond, the Suntouched had found a way to hurt her.
From the eleventh-floor balcony outside her room, Asylum could see all of the Second City, where she had made her new home. She wanted to be in the First City, on the front lines with her bravest soldiers, but her security advisors had talked her into prioritizing her own life. After all, isn’t that what she was asking all the people in the world to do? To abandon pride, and choose survival.
The city was vast, and it was red. Built far below the earth of Solkin, much of the Below had a wide, cavernous structure, with rocky walls, stalactite ceilings, and paved stone roads. But in the cities, the space between the Infinite Hells and Solkin was…less…than it was anywhere else in existence. Obscessum, the strange, sleek, pitch black metal that made up the Infinite Hells, was readily available to mine here, and the crimson energy source that gave devils their strength and made infernal contracts binding could be controlled by those with the know-how, giving the lights of the city a haunting red tint. It was claustrophobic, it was hot, all the clothes looked the same, and you had a good chance of wandering into Hell if you didn’t watch your step.
But it was going to save them all.
Some days, Asylum had to remind herself of that. Not that the cause was worth it, but that this was the only way to achieve it. Her devilish form may have complemented the fiendish aesthetic nicely, but she was a woman who appreciated beautiful things and lush comforts, once upon a time. Now, she had to be the calculating image of practicality, or everything thing fell apart. The world had to believe in the Below, or everyone in it would perish.
She took in a deep breath of the city’s lukewarm air, and exited her chambers with confidence.
“Everything alright, Grandmaster?” Kalabaster dul Endlessly, her stocky elvish attendant, asked patiently. He wore the kind of stuffy uniform that might be associated with a butler up on the surface. By choice. “You sounded…frustrated.”
“I am frustrated,” Asylum replied, continuing to walk without so much as a look at the elf. Several floors beneath her penthouse was a small network of glass overpasses that connected it to various buildings of importance. She made her way to the Waiting Rooms, where they kept treasured guests who were not yet cleared to walk freely among the city. “The Halfling translation of the Rites of Induction are nowhere to be found. I will have to do without them, as I’m much too busy to spend my day hunting for documents.”
“Of course, Grandmaster. If it should please you, I could devote a little of my time…”
“It shouldn’t,” Asylum interjected. “I have a city to run and a world to save, and you have the minutiae to attend. The important minutiae. We have underlings to search for scraps of paper.”
“And yet you still sound angry. The, ah, the neophytes speak common, Grandmaster.”
“It’s the principle of the matter, Kalabaster,” she growled. “The Rite of Induction should reassure the newcomers that the Below welcomes all. To read it in their native tongue is symbolic.”
They said nothing more on the matter as they reached the circular, magically reinforced door to the Waiting Room, which opened with a wave of Kalabaster’s hand. They entered into the dining hall, a particularly lavish room by the Below’s standards. The walls were painted a soft mint color, the chairs were made of wood instead of obscessum, the tables had clean tablecloths, and the lanterns had been modified to give off something approximating natural light. Asylum had argued that they shouldn’t be expending resources on people who had not yet been approved for assimilation, but it was thought that nobody would want to assimilate if they knew how sparse luxury could be in the Below.
The few staff preparing dinner in the kitchen stood at attention as they saw Asylum pass. She said nothing, and got a small thrill from their dutiful composure. There was little room for vanity in the Below, and it had been decades since Asylum felt truly beautiful, since her skin had gone rust-colored and cracked, and she took satisfaction where she could.
Before Asylum and Kalabaster stepped into the elevator in the ensuing hallway, she stopped suddenly. “I haven’t had a chance to look at myself, I was so fed up with…everything. How are my robes?”
Kalabaster stood on his toes to adjust her pointed collar a smidge. “Positively menacing, Grandmaster. Not that your authority is tied to your appearance, your excellency.”
Asylum sneered. “Am I the king, Kalabaster?” she snapped. The elf stammered out a partial response, but she cut him off. “Then do not talk to me like one. I am the Grandmaster of the Below, because I am your lord and master. I tell you what to do, and you do it, to serve me and all the world in our righteous cause. But I am not to be doted upon, do you understand?”
Kalabaster flinched, and on another day she might have felt sorry. Today, she was not sorry. She was irritable. And it was supposed to be a good day, too. But that blasted sword and its eternal hum – even here, she thought she could hear it.
On the Waiting Room’s seventh floor, there were two well-sized apartments in which the incoming citizens could live comfortably between their release from rehabilitation and their approval by a city official. Asylum didn’t have time to officiate every new citizen, but she made it a point to greet as many as she could.
When she knocked on the door to the apartment, a purple glyph appeared around the knob. When the spell ensured that its occupant was a proper distance from the entryway, the glyph disappeared, and Asylum entered the room. Kalabaster waited outside.
It was beginning to show its age, but the apartment still impressively resembled a comfortable home one might find in a surface city. There were wooden floorboards, woolen rugs, and woven blankets along with the same natural light as the dining hall. Sitting at the circular table in the modest kitchen was a young, sandy haired halfling man wearing pajamas that were wrinkled, but clean.
He sputtered when he saw Asylum, getting tea all over the book he was reading. “Madam Grandmaster!” he said. “I wasn’t expecting you so soon, I –”
She held up a hand. “Do not be afraid, Carlin.” The halfling was notably stiff as Asylum took a seat across from him. “I spent twenty minutes today searching my office for a script written in your peoples’ tongue. I was so infuriated at my own ineptitude that I destroyed old paperwork in a fit of rage.” Carlin was clearly unsure what to make of this. “I only tell you this embarrassing fact as a means of reminding you that there are no secrets in Below. You may take my word that I mean you no harm.”
“Of course not, Grandmaster,” he replied. “Would you like some tea?”
“I lack the time. I hope I do not make you feel unwelcome, but I have other citizens to greet before an important meeting – other halflings, in fact – and I will have to keep this brief. Common is fine, then, it would seem?”
Carlin nodded. “Halfling has fallen out of usage up on the surface, Madam Asylum. Grandmaster. Some of its conventions remain in the common tongue, but nobody has spoken proper halfling in half a century.”
Asylum stared at the halfling for a long moment. He shifted uncomfortably. “Of course. Especially for one so young as yourself, and in the Grandian militia, no less. I shouldn’t have presumed…” she trailed off. “I had worried that meeting under such grim circumstances would make you a difficult convert, but I am told you have come a very long way very rapidly. I’m pleased to see my instincts did not fail me.” She quickly regained control of the situation, and fixed her gaze upon his eyes in a way that commanded attention. “Now, tell me the purpose of the Below.”
Carlin glanced down at his tea and cleared his throat. “To protect the people of Solkin from the Void Lands. It may have stopped for now, but people forget how much damage it caused. How much it took from our world. Penscarop is the final continent, and it will not last forever. The Void Lands will spread again, and when it spreads, only those Below will be safe.”
“Correct. Who made this all possible, Carlin? And how? And why?”
“You made this all possible, Grandmaster. By sacrificing your immortality in exchange for the raw power of the Infinite Hells. You did it because you have devoted your life to protecting Solkin against the threat it refuses to acknowledge.
Thank you, Grandmaster,” he added.
“Correct. And you’re quite welcome, Carlin. Now finally, tell me what your purpose is here among us.”
“To aid in the construction, development, and recruitment for the Below.”
Asylum nodded. “I’d like to focus on recruitment. You were a soldier, after all.”
“A volunteer,” Carlin amended.
“You were quite a fighter regardless. We do what we can to find willing converts to grow our community, to show that we are not some villainous cult to be feared, but an earnest community to be supported. Yet fear is a powerful thing, as you well know. More often they must be brought here unwillingly, so that they might learn.
“But I am getting ahead of myself. Rise, Carlin.” The halfling stood. Asylum kneeled, so that she might look him in the eye. “The Void Lands spread,” she said.
“The Void Lands spread,” Carlin agreed.
“We will weather the storm,” Asylum said
“We will weather the storm,” Carlin agreed.
She placed her hand upon his head, with her thumb pressed against his forehead. His eyes instinctively looked inward at her cracked finger and pointed black nail. She spoke a guttural sentence of Eldritch, and Carlin let out a long breath. “The wards that protect this city will no longer prevent your passage. You are among us now. And I have a job for you at once.”
Asylum stood, and took Carlin’s teacup into her hand. She swirled a finger above it gently, mumbling incoherently to herself, picturing the surface in her mind, not far from the unfinished walls that marked the entrance to Below. The tea whirled in the cup beneath her finger, growing murkier and more colorful as it spun, adding greens and blues to the light brown tea. When her motion stopped, the tea settled, and an image of the area she’d imagined appeared.
Over one hundred people, perhaps over two hundred, marched along the road among the green hills in separate caravans, heading toward the massive elevator that would take them to Skymoore. There were dwarves and minotaur and dragonkin and elves and humans and gnomes riding horses and donkeys and griffons and pseudodragons.
“These people are journeying to Skymoore,” she said. “Skymoore does not accommodate its visitors, so tonight, they will be camped outside the city, on the surface. Tomorrow, they will be here, in the Below. Am I understood?”
“Good.” She stepped outside the apartment, and gestured for Carlin to follow. “This is Kalabaster. He will take you to the barracks. I will attend to the other neophytes.”
And Asylum stepped back into the elevator, dreaming with anticipation and sorrow, of the evening’s great victory, with no Suntouched to oppose her.