Even before he properly awoke, Xavier knew that something was drastically wrong. For one thing, everything just felt…slightly detached, almost, as if he had previously been staring directly at a picture but had taken a single step back and to the side.
Plus his bedroom didn't typically smell like a desert. When Xavier was younger, his family had taken a vacation to southern California, and visited Death Valley as part of their sight-seeing. His memories of the whole trip were fuzzy, but what he was smelling now rocketed him straight back to climbing a sand dune in the early morning as the sun was just clearing the mountains to the east.
Why did his bedroom smell like the desert?
Adrenaline shot through him, and Xavier bolted upright in bed. His mattress, complete with sheets and pillow but sans bedframe, was lying at the top of a giant sand dune surrounded by more giant sand dunes as far as he could see in any direction. Vegetation was practically non-existent, although there was a spotty amount of scraggly ground cover down the near side of his dune. The sun was just cresting the horizon diagonally over his left shoulder. There were no animals in sight, and the only thing he could hear was his own panicked breathing and the slight susurration of the sand in an early morning breeze.
Shit shit shit shit shit! He was in a desert. He was in bed, in a desert. He was in his pajamas, in bed, in a desert. Unless this was a particularly horrible and random dream that meant only one thing: he was in an isekai manga. In a desert. In bed. In his pajamas.
He was royally screwed.
Isekai, or "other world", was a genre in which the protagonist was transported into a fantasy world. The most common trope in recent years was to have the main character die and be reincarnated with their memories of modern day Japan intact. These ran the gamut from waking up as a fully-cognizant baby in another world, to unlocking their memories as a teenager, to simply having their old physical body transplanted into the new world.
Given that the last thing he remembered was peacefully lying down to sleep, and that his mattress and sheets came with him, Xavier doubted he was in that sort of plotline. That was good news, in one respect: it meant there was hope he might find his way back home. It was bad in another: that style of plotline almost always had an initial encounter with some form of deity who would grant some overpowered ability or at the very least provide basic information about what he was getting himself into.
As things stood, he had gone to bed and woken up in a world that might well be completely alien.
So when, following the realization that he'd been dropped into a manga plotline with a vengeance, he sat frozen in bed for several minutes of mind-blanking panic, he felt entirely justified.
Unfortunately, quietly panicking was not going to get him anywhere, and as the line of sunlight chased its way across his dune, Xavier was forced to move.
First things first: he got out of bed. The sand was gritty between his toes, but not yet unpleasantly warm. The simple act of moving seemed to jumpstart his brain, and as he quickly explored the dune he was on, his mind was in overdrive.
He ventured toward the leeward side of the dune and peered down. As he'd thought, he didn't recognize any of the sparse vegetation.
So what did he know? Although his initial assumption was that he was in an isekai there was an outside chance that he was still on Earth and had just teleported or been kidnapped or something. If he was supremely unlucky this might be a death game, though the lack of any sort of facilitator or fellow panicked participants made that less likely. Based on the things his father had told him, it certainly wasn't the Labyrinth Obscura, at the very least.
There was also an outside chance that he'd landed in a survival manga, but he doubted it. He lacked the requisite specialist knowledge, no one else who held such knowledge was around, and he'd seemingly teleported along with his mattress. That last bit in particular made the survival genre incredibly unlikely.
Regardless of the genre, though, he had one obvious choice of action: he had to move. Without water or shelter, he was in serious danger, but on the plus side the fact that he had absolutely no idea what was going on was likely to work in his favor: in order to advance the plot he necessarily needed to encounter someone. Since no one had stumbled over him yet, that meant he needed to head out in search of a manga coincidence.
Alright, so before he went running off with nothing but the pajamas on his back and hope in his heart, what were his assets? Could he use anything that came with him?
…Maybe not so much. He literally had just his sheets and mattress. Xavier was cursing himself for not sleeping with a water bottle or phone or something in his bed. He'd never expected to be transported somewhere while he slept, though.
On second thought: his sheets were basically white. And he recalled that people native to deserts often wore white robes to help offset the sun's energy…
A few minutes later, Xavier was wrapped in his upper and lower sheets and awkwardly sliding down the least steep side of the dune he could find. Behind him his mattress sat, a corner of his comforter flapping lonely in the breeze as sand began to gather in its folds. He'd thought about bringing it, but ultimately decided that less weight would lead to less energy spent and further travel before he collapsed from exhaustion. He might regret that decision come nightfall, but he had to live until nightfall first and being able to travel a little farther might be the difference between finding the coincidence that saved his life and missing it.
Initially Xavier tried walking in as straight a line as he could. However, after struggling up the second massive dune he gave it up and wended his way as best he could around and across the feet of the dunes. There were so few landmarks that he wasn't confident he could maintain a straight course even if walking up the dunes in his bare feet hadn't been incredibly painful and difficult. Rocks and the occasional course underbrush scraped at him, while the sand scoured the unwounded parts of his feet raw and somehow managed to make its way into his sheets and pajamas.
Worst of all was the omnipresent heat. It pushed at him like a physical thing, as if the air had turned oddly gelatinous. As he stumbled through the increasingly searing hot sand he almost imagined that he could see eddies and currents of heat curling around him.
Isekai manga protagonists tended to come in two flavors: overpowered and underdog. Occasionally, a protagonist would be both, usually starting as an underdog and then thanks to fighting through horrific adversity or exploiting loopholes in the way the world functioned transforming into a powerhouse.
Given his starting conditions, Xavier was reasonably certain he was an underdog. He lacked any comprehensive knowledge of gaming, physics, or practical mechanics so some of the most obvious paths to becoming overpowered were closed to him from the start. He sincerely hoped that he wasn't expected to subsist off of magical water or something in a narrative attempt to shortcut him to unfathomable power; those sorts of isekai almost always resulted in the protagonist being effectively tortured for a solid chunk of the story, losing a lot of their humanity, and ending up physically altered to the point they couldn't survive in their original world even if returning was an option.
He refused to countenance the possibility of being in that sort of story. And if he spotted any magically glowing water, he made a firm resolution to head the other direction immediately, no matter how thirsty he was feeling.
As he trudged further, thought became all but impossible. He had hoped to spend his trip brainstorming possible narrative structures and thinking of countermeasures, but with each shifting footstep his focus became more and more tenuous.
Several hours later, as the sun crossed the zenith of the sky, Xavier stumbled into the shadow of a large boulder partially submerged in the side of a dune and collapsed into an exhausted doze.
In his dream, he was back two years in time at the beginning of his sophomore year, and he was sitting at lunch surrounded by girls. Paula was teasing Samantha, who was spluttering and red in the face. Jill was enthusiastically describing her latest cross-country meet to Rachel. Ms. Cariño was sitting across from him, wearing a dress she would never have been caught dead sporting in school. The table bumped, and when he peeked underneath he spotted Vickie, dodging legs as she read a manga. His mother wandered by in the background, giving him a concerned smile as she passed.
Xavier sat quietly and let the conversation wash over him. He knew that he would escape the manga soon, but for now he took the opportunity to simply enjoy being surrounded by beautiful, interesting people. He'd told himself time and again over the last two years that he'd made the right choice—that playing along with the genre would have meant completely sacrificing control of his life—but surrounded by the susurration of happy voices he allowed himself to wonder if that were really true.
Rachel leaned over and placed her hand across his own. At first it was pleasantly warm, but it quickly heated to the point of discomfort. He tried to shift his arm out from under her, but she moved with him. "Xavier," said Rachel. "You need to wake up. It's time to move on."
Xavier came awake gasping, coughing, dizzy, and disoriented. In his sleep he had evidently flung his hand out of his sheets, and the sun had come around the boulder he'd sheltered behind and hit his skin directly. He fumbled his arm back into the sheets and scooted around the rock to keep himself fully in its shade, meager as it was.
His mouth was dry and felt if it were caked with sand. He craved a drink of water with an intensity he had never felt before. At this point, he'd take his chances even if it were glowing, no questions asked.
With difficulty, he forced himself upright, clutching the gritty sheets around himself more out of habit than any forethought. He needed to keep going. The sun was trending toward the horizon, and he was certain he had to start walking again. He was not confident he would be able to survive another day; he needed a manga coincidence as soon as possible.
The afternoon devolved into a torturous pattern of staggering, pain, and dizziness. His vision narrowed to little more than the sand in front of him as he laboriously wended his way between the dunes.
As the sun dipped lower and lower and his shadow stretched further and further, the landscape around him beginning to change in subtle ways without his noticing. The dunes began flattening out and occurring further and further apart. The number of small plants increased, and occasional signs of animal life appeared: a lizard that whipped away behind a rock as Xavier's shadow crossed it; the barely-perceptible specks of birds coasting far overhead; a shift and scurry of some small insect fleeing Xavier's footsteps.
Xavier's path, never particularly straight to being with, began to curve and wend about without any obvious reason. All he knew was that something drew him forward, or perhaps drove him from behind. If the sunlight struck like fiery arrows, somewhere ahead of him was the warmth of a cookfire. Or perhaps the rush of steam from a giant bath.
Though he'd probably drink it rather than soak in it. Maybe he'd do both.
And then he rounded the curve of one of the last big dunes he'd stumbled past in a while, and the cookfire or the sauna or whatever was right there. Except he hadn't found his way to a miraculous cooked meal or place of relaxation.
He'd instead wandered straight into the middle of a pitched battle.