My anger for Braeden dissipates upon completion of two missions in the Underworld, but my frustration remains. However, my frustration is no longer directed at Braeden, but at myself. As much as I want to be happy for our success, I can’t help but think I only made the task difficult for everyone else around me. Ever since the beginning, I treated everyone else as a hindrance, even Yumi, when I should analyze my own shortcomings. Everyone has to grow, and that includes me.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Yumi asks in a low whisper, while everyone else is cheering about our new achievement.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” I reply, brushing her off.
“You tried to kill Braeden, Mai. Forgive me if I’m a little worried about you.”
Her judgmental tone demonstrates she isn’t going to let this go. I would need to pull as many reasons as I could out of my ass to keep her satisfied for now. “You heard what he said. I wasn’t intentionally trying to kill him.”
“That’s not what it looked like to me.” She noticed my apprehension and added, “You’re my best friend, Mai. I’m not your enemy. All I’m saying is that it looked like there was something deeper, maybe it’s because we’re trapped in this crazy game. Or maybe it’s because of something else. If you don’t want to talk about it, we don’t have to. But please don’t lie to me and say there’s nothing wrong. I know you better than that.” She glances up at Mist, Serafina, and Braeden, who rejoiced in their share of the loot. My gaze follows as she concludes with, “They’re not terrible people. They can be friends if you allow them to be.”
Braeden notices us watching them and waves happily in our direction, completely oblivious to the fact that I could have killed him seconds ago. I avert my gaze, unable to see his sickening grin. What’s there to be happy about?
My mind wanders to a distant memory of an argument I once had with Maê:
“Why are you sitting around playing games? If you have time to rest, you have time to study,” Maê lectures me once more. “How will you get into a good college if you don’t apply yourself? You’ll never improve in math at this rate.”
“I’m tired, Maê,” I reply. Has she never noticed my efforts? Even though I struggled with physics and math, I went to every study hall during my free periods, I borrowed some helpful AP guides to study for the exam after senior year, and still managed to accomplish everything even with the early swim meets, long swim practice, and late nights with marching band and orchestra. When will it ever be enough?
“You promised to spend more time getting better at math. How do you hope to develop your own game if you can’t understand the technology? Put at least one more hour in and then you may head to bed,” she answers from the doorway, assisting Ari with flossing.
“When do I get to rest, Maê? When I’m dead?” I ask, not caring how abrasive my voice sounds. My fatigue cripples me, making me lose all sense. It doesn’t concern me that she could retaliate with a silencing slap.
Maê smiles at Ari, trying to keep him relaxed while she completes the task at hand. “Don’t talk that way around your brother,” she says with a light-hearted tone, but I know she’s seething beneath that facade.
“Does my happiness not matter?” The tears sting my eyes, but I silently tell myself to hold it in. Crying only makes me look weak, as she would say.
She throws the floss away and hands Ari a cup to rinse his mouth out. “Wash your face and then I’ll tuck you in for bed,” she says, closing the door behind her. The faucet turns on and I hear Ari hum from the other side of the door, realizing he’s no longer listening. “What’s there to be happy about?” she asks me. “Your math grades are appalling, your private music teacher tells me you haven’t mastered the new composition, and you’re being disrespectful to your mother. How have I always raised you? Respect your elders!”
The memory dissipates, leaving me more frustrated than ever. I cross my arms, wanting to hide within myself to avoid everyone else’s questioning glances. With a deep breath, I rejoin my comrades with Yumi, hoping they’ll move on and let bygones be bygones.
“Thank you for returning our thread to us. To show our gratitude, we have unlocked other areas of the Underworld for you to explore,” Clotho greeted us once Braeden handed over the missing thread. Upon the transaction, we each receive a generous donation of five thousand gold for completing the quest. There is also an added five hundred gold for sealing the monstrosities of Pandora’s box.
I open my map to see four additional floors within the Underworld: the Elysian Fields, where souls find eternal paradise; the Asphodel Meadows, another safe haven for blessed souls; the Fields of Mourning, a place where troubled souls with unfinished business roam; and finally, Tartarus, the deepest level of the Underworld and where some of the cruelest punishments are delivered to the malevolent spirits.
Five strips of water catch my eye, and I realize it’s the five rivers of the Underworld. The only one I’m really familiar with from my history classes are the Rivers of Lethe and Styx.
“I wonder if we’ll see Hades!” Yumi exclaims excitedly.
“I’m afraid Lord Hades is indisposed,” Clotho answers. “He is overseeing Lady Persephone’s trip to the surface world as spring is upon us. However, he has asked us to pass along a message to our guests. He hopes you will understand his absence is not an action meant to offend you. He will see you at a later time, when time permits.”
Lachesis turns towards me, but doesn’t say anything for a few moments. Even though she wears a blindfold, I can feel her warm stare pierce my soul. “You,” she says, raising her thin finger at me. Everyone’s heads turn towards me, noticing I’m being addressed. “Your heart has been touched by great darkness. Your greatest test shall come to pass. The Enchanter is watching.”
The Enchanter? Why would she watch someone like me?