Han Byul didn't understand what was going on.
She opened her eyes and saw a dark, star-studded sky above her. Upon sitting up, she saw that she was in a large garden. Two large marble fountains with statue faucets stood side by side in front of her, in between which lay a single cobbled path that led up to a small gazebo decorated with what looked like glowing lanterns.
Han Byul was dumbfounded. All around, the heavy scent of flowers intoxicated the air like alcohol, making her feel dizzy with their perfume. Even in the dim light, she could see the delicate white dots of roses bursting from between the shadows like a string of christmas lights.
Where am I? She wondered, slowly walking up towards the gazebo. Inside, she found a silver pattern painted onto the sleek wood. It was a Lotus.
Suddenly, she heard a large crash rattle the rosebushes. Upon turning around, she saw the boy and his drunk companion lying in the remains of a crushed bush, complaining in pain.
Han Byul hurried to their side. The more sober boy was already halfway out, brushing leaves and twigs from his hair.
"You okay?" Han Byul asked him, concerned.
"Yeah, I think so," The boy said, turning to look at the drunk in worry. "I'm not sure about him though."
"I'll help you pull him out," Han Byul offered, taking ahold of one of the man's arms. Together, they managed to lift him out without too much trouble, but Han Byul suspected that he would be having one hell of a hangover in the morning.
"Woah," The boy said, taking a good look around. "where are we?"
"I have no idea," Han Byul said, shaking her head in disbelief. "this feels like a dream, but I haven't dreamed in a long time."
"How did we get here--" The boy began asking, but he was interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming from the gazebo.
Two strangers appeared at the base of the stairs. One was a teenage girl with long, tied-back emerald-blue hair wearing a tunic dress and holding a silver stick. The other was a tall man with short, vermillion hair who wore an all-black suit with odd white markings.
Han Byul and the boy were still, waiting for them to approach.
The blue-haired girl motioned with her hand for them to come forward.
Hesitantly, they did, unsure of what else to do.
Han Byul looked between the two strangers. She didn't see any menace in the girl's face, but the man near her was giving them both a sharp glare.
"Follow us," The girl ordered. Her voice was like the swish of water against cool glass. "Oh, and don't worry about your friend, we have him taken care of."
Before the boy could ask anything else, the girl made the motion of zipping her lip towards him, and he fell into silence.
They turned to leave. Han Byul and her companion followed. Beyond the gazebo, a large iron gate sat between two large hedges. The moon's rays passed through the bars like outreaching fingers, giving Han Byul a feeling of being cornered as the menacing man unlocked the gate and proceeded to walk through.
The moment she stepped through a feeling of enlightenment overtook her. She didn't know what it was, but she felt like she'd been cleansed, in both mind and spirit, making her feel much more liberated than she had ever felt in her whole life. She could just fall upon the earth and not have to care about a single thing again--
Han Byul heard someone shout. Suddenly, she was looking over a pool of crystal-clear water, where large glowing lotus blossoms floated gracefully across. In the reflection, she saw the girl holding her back from falling into the water.
Han Byul stepped back. The girl huffed in annoyance.
"Have hidden sins, don't you?" The girl asked. "Happens with everyone who comes in here. The lotuses make you feel like you're on a super-charged high, then it convinces you to take an unexpected dip."
Han Byul bit back her response. She hadn't understood a thing that the girl just said but kept herself silent for the sake of finding out what was going on.
They kept going. Passing through multiple ponds, she saw lotuses of varying sizes that spun across their mirror-like surfaces. Once or twice, Han Byul swore she saw something large and silvery emerge to the surface and slide back down.
The boy edged near her, looking tense from fright.
"I don't know what to do," the boy whispered to her, looking suspiciously at the strangers in front of them. "Should we run?"
"It would be impossible," Han Byul whispered back, shaking her head. "we don't know this place half as well as they do."
The boy nodded, looking around at the endless amount of water surrounding them. Even if they could escape, there was no sure way of getting out of whatever place they were now in.
Suddenly, the strange couple stopped in front of a lone statue that stood inside a deep pool.
In the darkness, Han Byul couldn't tell what it was supposed to be, but could faintly see half-lit drawings around the stone base from the dim light of the lotuses.
"Your Highness," the girl said, her tone formal and serious. "We've brought to you the three humans you requested."
There was a long silence, then a creature that Han Byul had known wasn't any kind of fish slithered out from the water.
The first thing she noticed were the hands. They were hard and scaly, with fingers tipped in long, curved black claws. Then came the head. Hair as dark and wilted as seaweed fell across its face and covered it, but after seeing the hands, Han Byul could only imagine that the face behind that curtain of wet hair wouldn't be a pleasant sight.
Han Byul felt the boy beside her grip onto her jacket in fear. She couldn't tear her vision away from the monstrosity in front of her; it numbed her with pure terror and made her pray internally that what was going in was just a result of a long, anger-induced nightmare.
The creature made a low hissing sound that mimicked a dying snake being slowly consumed in a fire. The strangers nodded. Han Byul couldn't have read their expressions in the darkness if she could.
Quickly, it slid back into the depths of the water, as though it had said everything it needed to say to them.
The strangers turned back to them, but Han Byul and her companion were already starting to run across the soggy earth. She didn't want to know what they wanted with her or this boy, because as far as she knew, they were going to die before getting back home safely.
Blindly, they ran over the stray roots and rocks that began outcropping more prominently in their darkening sight, not knowing anything about their direction except that they wanted to get as far away as possible from the strangers as possible.
At one point they believed that they had lost them in the struggle. They collapsed on the ground from the effort, breathing in the cool night air that felt like ashes in their throats.
The image of the creature Han Byul had seen kept rewinding in her head. It made her want to scream, but she didn't have enough air to.
Han Byul didn't recognize that icy, almost crystalline voice as one that belonged to her companion.
Looking behind her, she saw the vermillion-haired stranger looking down at her. He seemed to increasingly become bigger as what seemed like minutes shot past like seconds, freezing her in a moment that wasn't allowing her to act quickly enough to make another escape.
Feeling a tugging sensation, Han Byul looked down to see that the earth was pulling her down like quicksand. It slowly absorbed her, always speeding up when she tried to pull herself out, leaving her to limply give up and watch in horror as the sky darkened for the third time that day.