For an entire half-hour, Cynthia threw up what felt like her body weight in blood, and by some miracle, she did not die.
Passing out would’ve been nice. Her throat and stomach burned like she had drunk raw acid. Still conscious after the vomiting, she stared at the pool of blood drowning the blue grass. Blue grass. The grass glowed with an azure hue. This couldn’t be Earth anymore, could it?
“Can you stand?” a quiet voice asked.
Her arms trembled as she held herself up. It wouldn’t be long until they gave, and she would then fall face-first into her blood. The body of an ant, see-through with a cyan tint, floated in the pool. The distorted noise of alien-like crickets wavered somewhere nearby.
“Help me,” Cynthia mumbled, blood dripping from her lips.
“I’m with you.” Two hands gripped her sweater and held her steady. “Do you think you can stand?”
“Stand? Did…did you not see any of what just happened?” She coughed out the blood drying at the back of her throat. Tiny cobalt specks of what looked like glass coated it. “Oh, god,” she said, “what is happening?”
“You’ll recover fast,” the voice said.
“Am I dead?” Cynthia licked at her teeth. The blood coating them tasted of sour copper. Her vision split into three, then two, as she looked up at the midnight purple sky. Hundreds of stars stared back at her—not a trace of light pollution. That sealed it! She could no longer be on Earth.
“Answer me, voice,” she said, “because I feel dead.”
The voice sighed. “You’re alive. I need you to stand. I need to find us water, and I can’t leave you here.”
“Where the…where am I? Who are you? Where are we?”
“I don’t know.” the voice said. “I didn’t bring us here.” Both arms reached under her shoulders to help her stand. Cynthia stumbled back as she stood, her head spinning at the rush of motion. She tripped over a coral-like branch and landed beside a glowing set of indigo-colored mushrooms. Their light flickered. A spider with amber skin and two extra legs dashed past her.
The figure who helped her up rushed over.
“You need to be careful!” she called. “This is a rainforest, it’s dangerous and I can’t let you get hurt.”
“I barely remember how I got here,” Cynthia said, rubbing her forehead. “God. Did I overdose? Or drink too much? I had it coming.” She looked to the voice, a short girl who couldn’t be an inch taller than five foot three. She wore an olive green jacket with a gear heavy wrist-mounted crossbow beneath the right cuff. Her ears, thick and curved, jutted out of the top of her head like those of an animal.
“Oh, you’re not human.”
“Great observation,” the girl whispered. “Of course I’m not human.”
“No,” Cynthia staggered forwards, and the girl rushed to grab her, “you can’t even be real. I don’t believe it, rabbit ears.” She reached to touch the girl’s hair, who recoiled and loosened her grip around Cynthia’s shoulders.
“Don’t do that!” the voice snapped. “I’m real, got it? And don’t call me a rabbit. I’m real, my name is Mai, and we’re not friends. Now be quiet and follow.”
Mai looked up to the sky, then took off south, her hiking boots breaking apart branches of a coral-like plant. Cynthia brushed off a tube snouted mosquito from her shoulder and caught up to the girl.
“Where are we going?”
“Water,” Mai said.
“Is that supposed to tell me something?” she replied, ducking beneath a vine. “We’re going to get water? Cool, I hope they have crushed ice here. Let’s forget that I’m on an alien planet and my tour guide is half rabbit. Oh, and I vomited enough blood to kill me. Did you see the glass or whatever that was in my blood? What does it mean?”
“Don’t be racist.”
Cynthia brushed off another of the mosquitoes. They buzzed around the blood coating her sweater.
“Racism,” she said, “that’s what you got from that?”
“I’m not a rabbit. Don’t call me one, it’s offensive. I’m Anarhi.”
“Sure, my tour guide is an Anarhi. An angry one at that. What fantasy world do you come from?”
She didn’t reply. Cynthia dodged around a patch of luminescent mushrooms, following behind her. They passed trees wider than any she’d ever seen, spotted with holes where violet feathered birds nested. One turned to her and let out a distorted caw. She could see their organs through their transparent eye sockets. Eerie.
She swatted at another tube snouted mosquito that buzzed around her sleeves.
“Alright, you wouldn’t have bug spray on you by any chance?”
No reply. The Anarhi knelled to brush the dirt off the path, inspecting a set of prints.
“You’re a quiet one, Mai, ain’t you? Here’s an easier question, why are you here?”
“I was chosen for this.”
Cynthia stopped walking to laugh. “Is this some destiny cliché? If it is, no thank you, send me back home. When I used to read, I’d drop most of those books right away. What kind of lazy god-”
“My people chose me. Not the goddess. And destiny or not, we have no choice.”
“Then what are we doing?” Cynthia asked. She leaned back against a tree. “Are we on a journey to reach the dark tower? Destroy a ring? Restore the order of the knights radiant?”
“I don’t understand these references.”
“Look, rabbit ears.” Mai scowled at the name. “I need to piece this together somehow. There was a party. Then the guy in the black and purple robes came up to me, and he opened a portal as I stumbled to the bathroom. I tripped through and started vomiting. That’s all the context I have, and I think it’s fair to ask for more.”
An orange-spotted snake making the skittering sound of a centipede crawled down beside her. Cynthia yelped, then dashed forward to catch up with Mai.
“Okay,” she said, “rabbit ears. This is an actual rainforest. My life—our lives are in danger here. We haven’t seen a real predator yet, and unless you’re lightning quick with that crossbow-”
“You better be accurate too, or we’ll be dead. How about we regroup with the others? You know, why didn’t they come with us? And come on, honesty, why won’t you tell me anything?”
“Because,” Mai said, turning her back to her, “you smell like nicotine and alcohol. You talk a lot and provide no useful skills to the group. Soon enough you'll be going through withdrawals, and then dealing with you will be even worse. I want to enjoy the quiet while I still have it.”
Cynthia let out a puff of air. “Okay. Feedback…taken. Got it.”
“I’m sorry,” Mai whispered, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Yeah. Let’s just find water.”
The distorted noise of the violet birds and animals unseen echoed through the rainforest. A ticking on the trees, a deep growl somewhere further off, and the hissing of a dozen different bugs. The ground rumbled and the oval-shaped leaves above them shook. Mai raised her fist for them to stop until it passed. They walked until they emerged from the path to find a wide pool of water.
One rust and one silver-colored moon lit the water with a serene glow. Cynthia relaxed—she could see a lot further now out of the rainforest and could tell a threat from a distance. She swatted at another mosquito before taking off her sweater.
“I’m going to try and wash off the blood, alright? It might get these mosquitoes off me.”
“Don’t!” Mai called, rushing up and grabbing her by the stomach.
“Get off me, you rabbit-”
“No! My people chose me to keep you safe. Look into the water, Cynthia, in the mud! There are eye stalks and they’re waiting for an animal to drink before it pounces. Look at the corpses in the water!”
Cynthia broke from Mai’s grip and stepped back. Sure enough, the tips of what she thought to be alien seaweed blinked from beneath the water’s surface. The bulbous eyes watched her and swayed from side to side. Bones laid around it like crushed rock.
“We’ll head back for tonight,” Mai said. “I wanted to find a stream or a river, not a lake, but this is a start. Follow close, got it?”
Her body shaking, she followed Mai back into the rainforest.
- - -
Cynthia laid down on the azure grass and scrolled through her phone. She had little charge left, but what did it matter? It’s not like she could call an Uber out here, even if she had service by some miracle.
The two others, despite the jungle’s noises, had somehow fallen asleep. It left her awake with Mai sitting across from her. The girl fiddled with her crossbow, her fingers turning the gears.
A blue-spotted frog leaped down from a tree and landed on Cynthia’s chest. Its webbed legs stuck to her sweater, and its cerulean tongue shot out to impale a mosquito. Cynthia dropped her phone.
“Don’t move,” Mai said. “Do not touch it-”
Ignoring the words, she swiped at the frog to push it off, the oil-secreting from its back sticking to her fingers. The frog emitted a high-pitched squeal and leaped to the side. The oil sank into the pores of her hand—black spots bloomed in her vision.
Spades of warm colors followed, breaking into triangles, rotating, spiraling into serrated, zig-zag patterns. Cynthia sunk down and watched the sky, her body numb. An emerald shone in the middle, glowing, shattering into overlapping, translucent spheres. They melted into a liquid and dripped down into puddles.
A voice whispered to her from eons away.
Can you hear me, Cynthia? I’m with you, okay? Breathe.
A set of scarlet fangs growled in front of her, opening, stretching into nothing. Eyes in the surrounding fog watched, each set a deep red, shadows approaching one step at a time. Cynthia screamed, yet made no noise.
I’m right here beside you, you’re alright. Deep breaths.
Deep breath. She opened her eyes.
“Mai? My god.” Cynthia sat up and brought arms around her knees. Mai sat right beside her with her legs crossed. “I’m scared straight off drugs. That was terrifying.”
“It’s the frog’s defense mechanism,” Mai said. She took Cynthia’s hand and washed it over with a canteen. “How it wards off prey. Are you okay now?”
“I’m cold, but I can see again.”
Mai undid her jacket, then wrapped it around her shoulders. The warm, fuzzy material broke the wind, and Cynthia pulled it tight.
“Won’t you be cold?” she asked.
“It’s warmer here than it’ll ever be where I’m from. I’ll be fine.”
“You’re really kind, Mai,” she said, exhaling. “Look, I’m sorry for how I treated you earlier. You saved my life at the lake, and I’ve been nothing but rude to you. Can we start over? Since we’re both stuck here?”
“Of course. It’ll be easier that way,” she said. “My people chose me to take care of you. I’m not too sure what’s going on myself, and the others,” she looked over at them, still asleep, “they’re leaving me in the dark too. Know that I wouldn’t want this to be destiny, either. That would be lazy.”
Cynthia laughed, and Mai smiled.
“What I do know is that you’re manabound, Cynthia. It means you have the power of pure energy. When you came through the portal, it charged your blood. That’s why you threw up, and those shards you saw were pure mana. It’s why you didn’t die. It’s regenerating your cells rapidly.”
“Really now? Any idea why it’s me in particular? I had nothing going in my life other than drinking.”
Mai went back to pushing the gears around on her crossbow. “Somewhere in your bloodline, there is someone like you.” She stood up and brushed herself off. “You should get some sleep.”
- - -
ONE YEAR LATER
Mai sat at the cliffside, watching the waters crash into the base of the mountains. She was getting used to seeing with only one eye. Her mind adapted to that darkness on her left, feeling more natural by the day. She turned to her friend, her mind wandering as she watched the waves.
“What are you thinking about?” Mai asked.
“Hm?” Cynthia looked over, her brilliant cerulean eyes sparkling with energy—not a touch of white left in them. Her once blond hair, now silver with blue strands, blew behind her with the wind. “Do you remember the azure rainforest?”
“Of course,” Mai said. “That was…a year ago, right? That’s when I met you.”
“We didn’t really get along back then.”
“We did not.”
Cynthia snapped her fingers, and blue sparks shot from her palm.
“Destiny or not, I’m glad it was you I got stuck with,” she said. “I still remember that acid trip, with the spotted frog. I focused on your voice. That’s what got me out of it.”
“I think it was just a low dosage, but that’s a kind thought.”
She laughed. Mai breathed in the salt-tainted air—the comforting scent of the sea. She didn’t talk much, but Cynthia never seemed bothered by it. They could sit together in a companionable silence that didn’t make her nervous.
“We still got a long way to go, don’t we?” Cynthia said.
“Yeah. The journey has only begun. I’m happy to be by your side for it, friend.”
“As am I, Mai.”
The waves crashed below, and Mai smiled.