As she had so many times over the years, Rachel awoke in an unfamiliar place.
This was admittedly the first time she woke up in the middle of a desert, though.
She sat up in bed, covers clutched around herself to ward off the chill of the early morning, and excitement and fear coursed through her in equal measure. "It worked," she breathed. "I can't believe it actually worked." She hesitated for a moment, pinched herself hard, paused, and finally shrugged. Well, no time like the present. She and the Brock family had been preparing for this for over two months, and now it was time to see if their predictions were accurate.
Rachel yanked the comforter up and out from where it was tucked under the mattress, sending sand scattering across the top of the dune. Cinching it awkwardly around herself, she crawled to the foot of the bed and pulled the rest of the covers aside. Underneath was a folded set of clothing, a pair of jackets of different weights, and a canvas flap that wrapped completely around the foot of the mattress.
After a bit of shuffling to get herself out of her pajamas and into her clothes without leaving the protection of her comforter, Rachel put on the warmer of the two jackets and stepped off the bed. A twist at the string holding the canvas flap tight against a button on the mattress, and she started pulling out supplies. First a pair of sturdy boots, which she immediately donned. Next came a large knife in a sheath that she threaded onto the belt that followed after it before strapping it around her waist. Finally, with grunts of exertion and a few muttered profanities she succeeded in pulling a full backpack from out of the mattress.
At this point the bottom half of the mattress was looking rather sad and saggy. Rachel rummaged around in the backpack and pulled out a flashlight which she aimed into the guts of the mattress as she slid its button into the "on" position.
Nothing happened. She pointed the flashlight at her face and slid the button back and forth several times to no avail. "Well that's not good," she muttered as she replaced the flashlight in the backpack. She had double-tested the batteries before packing it, so the failure was due to something unpredictable. Setting the backpack aside on the sand, she crouched down and peered into the mattress as best she could, leaning from side to side to get a better view in the dim, pre-dawn light.
Finally she stood, brushing the sand off her knees. "I guess I didn't miss anything." As she turned towards the backpack to pick it up, the sand around her spasmed.
Rachel fell forward onto the bottom half of the mattress, its frame colliding with her diaphragm and driving the air from her lungs before the dune bucked again and she was tossed breathless off the mattress entirely. Her backpack tumbled down as the sand collapsed underneath it, and Rachel forced herself to roll over and lunge for it. Her fingers just brushed the strap before it vanished out of sight.
Desperate and gasping, Rachel scrambled on her hands and knees backwards, trying to avoid following the backpack into what was quickly becoming a yawning pit.
She would have made it to the crest of the dune, if the mattress hadn't slid into her from behind just as another great lurch from the earth tossed everything slightly into the air.
For a few moments everything was tumbling confusion as Rachel half rolled and half slid down the ever-steepening ramp of sand. She desperately grabbed at the earth but found nothing to halt her descent: only cascades of sand that fell with her in a choking cloud.
Before she reached the bottom, another violent shudder rippled through the earth and Rachel found herself suddenly in free-fall, unable to see anything through the waves of sand pelting down around her.
A scream ripped its way out of her throat as she desperately tried to brace for impact, but the impact when it came was swift and utterly unexpected. She landed face first on something soft enough to absorb her momentum without harming her, but which quickly hardened as she lay sprawled and gasping on its surface.
Stranger still, it was rising quickly, leaving Rachel's stomach behind. Not having any better options, she hung on as best she could and shut her eyes against the grit in the air.
A few seconds later, the motion eased, then ceased, the last grains of sand pattering around her and sliding off whatever she was lying on with a gentle susurration. Gingerly, Rachel sat up, squinting in the sudden brightness; evidently the sun had at last crested the horizon.
What on earth was she standing on? It wasn't quite flat, but wasn't so rounded she had trouble staying in place and it was covered in…were those scales? Christ, they might be wider than she was tall, and they not only covered the area she was resting on, but there were further huge humps and dips of monstrously scaled flesh surrounding her on all sides. Ooooh no. Oh no oh no. Oh she did not want to turn around.
Rachel took a shaky breath and forced herself to stand up and pivot in place.
She didn't quite scream, but she couldn't help the slight whimper that escaped her lips.
Directly behind her was the vertically-slitted eye of a dragon or snake so large she could have climbed through its pupil with room to spare. Its coils—one of which she was now standing on—completely obscured the surrounding desert. Its head was so large that this close she wasn't able to properly see it; mostly she could just see the thing's eye with any details from the rest of its head lost in her peripheral vision.
Seconds stretched toward a minute as the eye stared unblinkingly at Rachel, and Rachel stared back. She was at a loss for what to do. Although she wasn't particularly worried about the thing trying to eat her—it was so much larger she didn't think it could even get her into its mouth—if it shifted even a little bit, she was liable to fall and suffer serious injury. Its scales might be huge, but they were still incredibly tightly interwoven, and the thing's coils pressed closely enough against one another that if she got an arm or leg trapped there and the creature shifted the limb would be crushed or torn straight off. Plus, she was frankly unsure how far off the ground she was at this point.
On the positive side, although she might be having trouble not hyperventilating, this bizarre situation was at least within the realm of one of Bill Brock's predictions. Now if only she could remember what it was he'd recommended she do if she was greeted by a non-human being of unimaginable power. She was having a little trouble forming coherent thoughts at the moment…
When Xavier, his mattress, and all his bedding disappeared overnight, leaving a bare bed frame, the Brock family had a good idea what had happened, and Hana and Bill didn't hesitate to share with Rachel, their long-term resident; after all, it wasn't as if they could pretend Xavier had gone on a sudden trip or something, taking his mattress with him.
"I'd hoped we were done with this," Bill had said, tears in his eyes and his hands gripping Hana, who looked as if she'd been carved out of stone. "Xavier escaped two genres already! Damn it!"
"Where do you think—I mean, do you know what genre he's likely stuck in now?" Rachel had asked.
"Isekai," Bill answered. His fingers on Hana's shoulders were turning white. "It has to be isekai. I made some calls, and the Labyrinth isn't—in any case, that sort of spontaneous disappearance almost certainly means isekai. Plus it's a popular genre these days."
"Isekai?" Rachel had asked, looking to Hana in hopes to draw her out.
Bill answered her. "Other world stuff, usually fantasy." He looked with concern at his wife. "I'm sorry, Rachel, but could you give us a bit of time? Alone?"
She'd agreed to that easily enough, and quietly slid out of the room to go stare at Xavier's empty bed frame.
Later, when she'd informed them she wanted to try and go after him, getting an agreement was anything but easy. Arguing with Bill was terrifying, but ultimately worth it when the row snapped Hana out of whatever dark place she had withdrawn into. That, at least, had gone according to Rachel's plans.
She hadn't anticipated that Hana would argue her side, though.
Over two months of planning and training later, she'd laid down to sleep on a new, specially-modified mattress in Xavier's room and woken the next morning exactly where she'd started. After a week of similar nights, everyone was starting to get discouraged about her chances, but she'd opted to try it one more time…and woken up surrounded by sand.
Minutes had passed, and the giant dragon-snake-thing hadn't moved at all. It was so still Rachel was beginning to wonder if it was alive at all, or some sort of magical—something. Her imagination sadly failed her on that point.
"Hello?" she finally called up to it. "Can you understand me?"
The monster remained perfectly still, except for its eye which rolled abruptly downward as if it was looking at its own scales and then back up to Rachel. It repeated this again, and then once more.
"Uh. Are you saying yes? You do understand?"
The eye remained unmoving. Well, that wasn't very helpful.
"I think I'm going to climb down, if you don't mind." Rachel pointed down along the thing's coiled body.
The eye didn't move. She cautiously side-stepped, keeping her focus on the thing's head and as she did so it shifted ever-so-slightly to keep its eye lined up with her. However, the movement of its head translated down through the rest of its body, and Rachel stumbled; even small movements for this behemoth translated into large shifts from her perspective. She caught herself as she fell, with her hand pressed against the scale she'd been standing on.
Hello, little empty one, she thought. But it wasn't her thought. She looked up in panic in time to see the pupil of the eye near her flare wider with some incomprehensible emotion.
"Well, shit." Moving slowly and heart pounding, she placed both palms flat against the thing's body. "Can you understand me now?"
Indeeeed, she hissed internally to herself. Will you listen to a proposition, little one?