Completion of our first world quest results in a generous level-up as I gaze at my stats, noticing I’m now a proud level fifteen. Upon returning Theseus to Ariadne, he gifted us a lock of the Minotaur’s fur, which Braeden keeps secured in his inventory. I don’t imagine it’ll generate a lot of money, but the dungeon rewards alone should be enough for us to find an inn to sleep in for the night.
I glance at the analog clock in the corner of my vision, noticing it says 15:38. It’s midday, meaning we only had a few hours of daylight left before we called it a night. If we want to make it to the second floor, we need to hurry.
“We need to ration our gold. Make sure we are saving just enough for food and lodging,” I say, hoping the others will fall in line with my recommendation. As much as I want to believe everyone wants to be the hero in the game, there’s no such thing as good without some evil. What’s stopping other players from following suit of the mysterious cloaked assassins from PK-ing others?
“No, we need to upgrade our gear. Starting with Serafina’s staff. She’s lower in level than any of us,” Braeden objects to my astonishment and frustration as he walks towards the town. “Her health and mana regeneration spells will come in handy for the sixth floor boss and last boss of this world. I know the forest is not our top choice, but we need to make do. Money will come as we progress further in the story. Our equipment is a priority.”
“So you just want us to get picked off by some players who are trigger-happy? You might be willing to take that risk, but I’m not. We have people’s lives at stake, and we’re not going to risk them all because you want to be cheap!” I argue, unable to see through his reasoning. “This isn’t a game anymore. These are people’s lives!”
“Don’t you think I know that?” He comes to a halt, his question comes out surprisingly calm, yet harsh. When he turns around, I catch a glimmer of what I think is fear, but it disappears quickly before I can confirm. His usual bright grin returns to his face and he says in a cheerful tone, like he’s silently begging me to go along with his plan, “Please just listen to me, Mai.”
There’s a desperation in his tone and I have no choice but to put my differences aside and agree. “Alright.”
“I’ll go get some food and trade this in for a new staff for Serafina. Why don’t the rest of you review the next world quest and take on some of the smaller minion camps on the second floor while you wait? The more levels you get, the better your stats,” he asks next.
We all nod in acknowledgment and he disappears through the fog, leaving us alone. I glance at Serafina and Mist, who are wearing grim expressions, like they know something about Braeden’s behavior. It’s the first time I’d seen him act so differently from his usual cheerfulness. I want to ask why, but I remember Braeden isn’t my friend. He’s simply a means to an end. He’s not my friend. Why should I care?
The door to the second floor sits on the opposite side of the first floor. To get there, we have to pass through the Plaza of Memories once more. Braeden could have easily waited and let us go with him since we’re all headed in the same direction, but there’s no sense in lingering on the past.
On the way back into town, we pass through a couple of camps of level five harpies. When I first encountered them, their half-human half-bird appearance startled me. With seemingly perfect white skin, enchanting purple eyes, and luscious wavy locks of black hair, they looked every bit the beautiful women of legend. However, if I look past the innocent facade, I would notice their black bird wings and sharp talons. Being the personification of stormy winds, their destructive powers are preached about Greek mythology, they’re powerful enough to blow away their opponents.
However, against a team of players over level ten, it’s nothing for us. Their gales are no stronger than a simple spring breeze, their talons only sharp enough to chip away a fraction of our health bar, before it’s completely healed by Serafina’s melody.
Before we know it, we’re on the other side of town, standing in front of a pair of golden doors trimmed with carvings of wheat. The center of the doors have a larger carving of a cornucopia–a horn-shaped container overflowing with vegetables, daisies, and sunflowers. As soon as I touch the door, a bright light shines through as it opens slowly.
We step through and it reveals a dreary place, where anguished moans echo. A strange river runs past us, disappearing in the distance, glowing an eerie blue. An old man with a long beard rows a boat with a single stick, paying no heed to the spectral apparitions pawing at the boat’s hilt.
“Oh, sure, this looks like home,” Yumi says sarcastically, her gaze darting around nervously. “Are you sure we got the right place?”
“There’s only one door on the first floor,” Mist replies from behind us.
A black and gray banner appears above our heads and it says ‘The Underworld’ in cursive lettering. The next world quest triggers as the sign dissipates. ‘Find the Missing Thread,’ it says in large gold letters.
“Missing thread? What could that mean?” Serafina asks. “Didn’t we use thread in the previous quest? Can’t we just submit that?”
“Something tells me it won’t be that easy,” I reply, scrolling down to see if the quest will provide any hints. And there it is in italics: find the Moirai. The Moirai are goddesses of fate who lived in the Netherworld. They consisted of three women, Clotho, the spinner of the thread of life; Lachesis, the measurer of life; and Atropos, the bringer of death. Together, they knew who would be born, how long they live, and when their time is to die. Seeing as the Moirai have a hand in determining life, clues regarding the missing thread lie with them. But how far do we have to tread into the Underworld? It’s not without consequence. If we’re not careful, we could lose sight of our mission if we accidentally drink from the River of Lethe, or lose our heads to Cerberus. Not to mention the risk of bumping into Hades.
"What are you thinking, Mai?" Yumi asks, trying not to let the tormented souls floating in the waters around us bother her.
"We'll need to go deeper into the Underworld," I finally say. "It's a huge risk because we don't know what's waiting for us on the other side of that gate."
"Should we wait for Braeden?" Serafina asks worriedly.
"No, he trusted us to level up while we wait for him. We should proceed," I answer.
"He mentioned low-level camps, not a suicide mission," Mist interjects, crossing his arms defiantly. "Like you said, we don't know what's waiting for us on the other side. We should wait for Braeden to catch up because he's actually completed this quest already. We would be fools to not acknowledge that."
I stomp up to Mist, not appreciating his disrespectful tone. I can see it in his eyes that he doesn't trust me. "In case you haven't noticed, there aren't any monsters out here! And I'm sure Braeden knew that, otherwise, he wouldn't have left us alone. Take a good look around, Mist." I wave my hand, gesturing to the devoid lands, the blank igneous rock walls. "The only thing we're getting out of this area are two terrified girls." I gestured to Serafina and Yumi, who are clutching onto each of my arms in fear.
This is only the entrance! If you're scared of the Underworld now, just wait until we progress further!
━━━━━⋅⋅⋅ˏˋ ♚ ˊˎ⋅⋅⋅━━━━━
After a few more minutes of arguing about what’s best, Braeden has managed to catch up with us. He gifts Serafina her new staff privately and glances at me and Mist, who refuse to budge. I continue to glare at Mist, knowing we’ve wasted our time arguing when we could have been halfway through the quest.
“What’s going on here?” Braeden asks, his curious gaze flickering between me and Mist. “Why is everyone standing around at the entrance? Is there a problem?”
“There’s no problem,” I reply, averting my gaze in frustration. No doubt he’ll take his best friend’s side.
“Well, we should pay the ferryman. There aren’t any monsters in the entrance, we have to tread deeper in the Underworld,” he explains, surprising me.
My gaze snaps towards Mist, who looks embarrassed. While I expect to get an apology, he trudges away from me to take his place at Serafina’s side once more. She whispers what I assume to be comforting words while rubbing his shoulder gently.
“Where do we go?” I ask.
Braeden raised a brow in confusion. “There’s only one place to go right now. When you progress through the Greek Mythic Kingdom, you’ll unlock more floors of the Underworld. Charon’s ferry will take us straight to the Underworld Palace of Hades.” Just as I think he’s becoming tolerable, he adds, “I can tell you all about it if you’d like.”
“I’ll pass,” I reply, leaning away from his intrusive gaze.
The ferryman turns the boat around, appearing in front of us. His name, Charon, hovers above his head in white font. Now seeing him close up, I see he’s not the elderly man I initially saw. He has a long white beard and is a particularly unattractive man. My eyes zero in on his crooked nose before shifting to his bony figure and tattered tunic. His irises are white and he avoids our gaze, which tells me he’s blind.
“The toll to cross this river is one obolos coin,” he says, his voice sounding haggard. A prompt pops up on the screen as he raises his hand and it reads ‘WILL YOU PAY THE TOLL?’ with two possible options: ‘Yes, pay now’ and ‘No, I’m not ready.’
“What the hell is an obolos coin?” Yumi asks. “Where and how do we get one?”
I rummage around the dusty ground, grimacing when my hands touch the cobweb covered skeletons. If the legends are true, we should find the coin we need from this corpse. Soon enough, I feel something cold and rough. I pull the object out through the skull’s mouth to reveal a silver coin with a picture of a helm in the center.
Braeden lets out a whistle of amazement. “Wow, it took me longer to figure that out!”
“It was a long shot.” I remember from my history class about how these very coins were placed in the mouths of buried bodies. Those who didn’t have the coin demonstrated their inability to pay the fee and were forced to wander the River of Acheron, the very river flowing in front of us. Their souls would never find peace, going as far to torment the living.
I select ‘Yes’ under the prompt and give Charon the coin. He takes it and drops it in the satchel he wears around his waist. It clinks to the bottom with a gentle clang, clearly filled with other coins.
The passage across the river isn’t a sight-seeing adventure. There are several tunnels with unmarked signs, making it easy for anyone entering to get lost, or to make it difficult for anyone to escape. It doesn’t bother me so long as I don’t look down and pay any of the souls wailing their displeasure. However, I can’t say the same for Yumi and Serafina. Yumi holds onto my arm in a deathly vice-grip that is sure to cut off my circulation. Meanwhile, Serafina is close to tears as Mist embraces her, whispering to her to keep her distracted.
We pass by Cerberus, three-headed beast, who is every bit the frightening guard dog the myths make him out to be. With a serpent’s tail, a mane full of venomous snakes, and sharp lion claws, he sleeps by the door leading to the Underworld Palace like he’s some ordinary pet. He appears unbothered by our presence, but his blood red eyes pierce our souls, as if silently daring us to provoke him.
The moment we get off the boat, it transports us to what looks like a throne room. Three petite women faced a fountain, where a golden string floated in the air, growing more strands from their careful nurturing.
“Careful, Lachesis. This one is still a child,” the long purple-haired woman murmured to the short green-haired woman holding a pair of scissors. “They have much to fulfill if they’re going to achieve their destiny.”
There is only one group of women who would wield scissors and golden thread. That's when I come to the realization that the women standing before us are the goddesses of fate, the Moirai.
“I think we have a guest, Sisters,” the pink, short-haired woman says, gazing up from the strand of thread they’re working on.
We approach them tentatively, and once I get closer, I notice their eyes are covered in bandages. Their heads follow our movements as though they can see us clearly. They aren’t the old hags that the myths describe them to be. On the contrary, they’re beautiful, young women with an otherworldly glow about them.
“You,” the pink-haired woman speaks, pointing her finger at Serafina.
“M-me?!” Serafina asks, her voice raising an octave. Her gaze flickers between all of us before landing on Mist.
“Atropos, you’re scaring her,” Lachesis says, gently tapping her sister’s hand. “You’ve found this place because you’re the only one who can return what we have lost. To regain what’s been lost, there must be rebirth.”
“And when there is rebirth, there is death,” the one who I identify as Clotho, who circles around me.
“Because every beginning has an ending,” Atropos chimed in, her voice tickling my ear.
“What does this have to do with the missing thread?” I ask, trying to not let their closeness bother me. NPCs couldn’t kill us, could they?
“Birth is something pure and bright, something that can’t be tainted. It’s similar to the creation of a new life thread me and my sisters create. If you have the strength, you can generate enough energy to replace the thread we’ve lost. To do so, you will be tested. The Underworld has many enemies, many protectors, many opportunities. Will you accept the challenge?” Lachesis explains.
Another prompt pops up on the screen and asks “ARE YOU READY TO FIND THE MISSING THREAD?’ only this time, the option of ‘No, I’m not ready’ is not available to select. I glance to my teammates and they nod in agreement, preparing their weapons for battle. Without another moment to lose, I tap the ‘Yes’ button to enter what could be our first team fight.