Slowly my eyes start opening. It must be a deep sleep I am shaking off. The kind of sleep that happens after forcing the body past its limits. I say slowly opening because, for whatever reason, my eyelids aren responding to my commands.

After a few failures, I try using my hands to open my eyelids. No response. I can move my hands. I try again only to get the same results. Maybe my legs will respond. Nothing.

Fingers…Toes…My mouth. Can I try to yell for help?

Still nothing. Panic starts to creep through me.

Despite all my mental efforts, not one part of my body moves an inch. Move. I command my body. Move! I focus on my hands, hoping that maybe I can move them now—still nothing. My heart is beating harder now. With all my willpower, I try to get my body to roll over somehow. Nerve-racking stillness is my result as panic closes its grip on me. Getting nowhere fast, I force myself to calm down.

Breathe. In and out. In and out. Breathe, I tell myself, focusing on the one thing I can control.

After what feels like a lifetime, I notice a feeling returning to my body. Beneath me is a familiar bed, one that feels like home. My eyes finally open with my body completely relaxed, only to close immediately. The bright sun is showing off, forcing me to let my eyes adjust slowly.

By the time I can fully open my eyes, I almost have control over my body. That limited control is seized upon as my eyes begin to water, my nose becomes itchy, and my whole body jerks involuntarily. Violently two sneezes relieve the problem they created.

On the plus side of things, the sneezes acted as a catalyst for my body since I can now move.

Sitting up, I realize that I am not home. Just as soon as that thought crosses my mind, another immediately follows. I have no idea where home is—immediately following that thought, like a dam bursting, more thoughts flood my mind.

Where am I?

Who am I?

What am I doing in all this sand?

And why is it so bright for the love of all that is good and holy?

My mind is racing as the unknown continues to raise question after question. The onslaught of unanswerable questions is overwhelming. I can feel panic seeping back in, slowly drowning any chance for rational thought.

Breath. Remember to breathe, I tell myself, allowing the simple body exercise to pull me out of the depths.

Calming myself for the second time, I think of what I know.

One, it is bright. Good.

Two, there is sand everywhere. Nice observation.

Three, I am practically naked. I have nothing, no gear, no shoes, no shirt, my luxurious locks are gone, and no pants. Im on a roll. Positive reinforcement continues to accompany my assessments. Celebrating the small victories helps to keep my destitute situation nowhere near me and my thoughts. Despair is lurking, and I do not intend to let it in.

Four, I have no memories of this place. Im nailing this knowledge assessment.

Five…. well, four observational facts are pretty good. Even if considering my missing marvelous mane conjecture was more of a projection, there is no denying that my third assessment was loaded. I can work with that.

Having successfully assessed the obvious, I take a moment to evaluate the less obvious, my body condition and my soul.

The body check is a simple stretching technique that I naturally follow. I work through my head, neck, shoulders, and arms, starting from the top. I stretch everything, including my fingers and toes, to ensure my muscles and bones function correctly.

My flexibility is unimpressive, and movement feels extra stiff, but to my relief, my body works. I complete the rest of the stretching form, working out some stiffness.

Similar to the physical assessment, assessing my core comes naturally. It is like a practiced movement, like walking.

For my core, I take a deep breath and focus within. Shock is an excellent way to describe my emotions. Numerous channels like my veins run throughout my body, eventually returning to my core.

My core itself is multilayered and empty. That can be right, can it? The discovery opens the door to even more questions. A door that I quickly close. Questions can come later.

Self-indulgence, possibly more conjecture, leads me to believe that I am powerful… or at least I should be powerful. I would have to be a highly proficient cultivator to create nine core layers.

Proof of diligent training is evident in the foundation of my core layers. Each layer is laced with mind, body, and spirit essences. Additionally, each of these essences seemingly has reached a high rank. This understanding leads me to believe I should feel strong. Yet, I do not. Quite the opposite.

Baffled by this mystery, I continue to inspect my core. My segmented layered core is beside my heart, a fraction of its size. The innermost layer, the ninth layer, is empty, as far as I can tell. There is no hint of mana, energy, or substance within. The layer is just there. No matter how hard I focus on it, I find nothing. I repeat this diligent study for each subsequent layer.

Nothing. Eight times I repeat the process. Except, to my shock, that isn precisely the case for my innermost layer. This core discovery provokes excitement and hope. The Center of my core, the innermost layer, is not nothing.

Though it looks empty, like the others, it is filled with the faintest hint of energy. Almost as if absence had an aura to it. Indeed it seems like I am looking at nothing and seeing something there. The nothingness is quite different from the rest of my empty cores.

Intrusively hope forces muscle memory to kick in. I try a basic cycling technique reaching for the nothingness inside me. However, the mana in my first core, the odd-looking one, isn responding. No matter how I try to cycle, the absent energy avoids my grasp. Not letting me abandon the fight, hope keeps me reaching within.

I try again and again and again. Time eludes me as I keep reaching for the energy. My power…my strength. If I can have this, if I have mana to use, my situation won be so dire, for at least I will have something.

Eventually, hope fades into stubbornness. From there, it descends into desperation. I am confident nothing will happen, but as one last-ditch effort, I also try to cycle my empty cores. Still nothing.

”Well, Ill be damned. ” I audibly curse the all-encompassing nothingness and the sands before me, letting my curse carry away my frustrations.

Somehow I managed to make it to nine cores without harnessing mana. Or the mana was drained from within me…

Mana vampires? Is that a thing? Did some mana-sucking leach rob me of my mana and leave me to die?

Energy-sucking bats… I was on my way to a great party when I was swarmed and swiped up by bats, sucked dry of energy, and left in a desert to dry out and die because bats are poetic in nature. No, thats very unlikely. I doubt past me partied or was even invited to party.

Whatever happened, I am baffled.

My empty cores are most likely a factor in why I feel so weak, but it feels more than that. The foundations of my core feel off. It was as if my entire being was ripped apart, then piece by piece, put back together. What is going on?

”Cursed stupid vampire bats. Who needs them and their lame parties anyway. ” I mutter to myself, shaking my fist defiantly.

It could be that I need time to recover, or maybe Im not as powerful as I think I am or was. I could be misjudging my assessment completely. Not having most of my memories intact further cements that thought.

Regardless, I don feel like waiting around long enough to find out if my strength will return before I dry out and die. On top of that, dwelling on my current weakness is bringing up misplaced anger…even worse, despair is still looming.

If it is up to me, which there is a chance it is, I prefer to not let despair sink in. That would be worse company than my present self.

Content with my brief self-assessment, I look around me. Sand. In every direction I look, there is sand.

”Wait a moment, do bats live in the desert? Maybe the smaller variety. Sure. But what about the giant human carrying type? I don know if this habitat is sustainable for that kind of animal. ”

I continue to observe the desert. Serpentining hills of golden sand stretch out as far as I can see in almost every direction. Towards the west, there looks to be a mountain range within a day and a half walk. From here, only the peaks of the mountains can be seen sticking out softly on the horizon.

Not knowing what else to do, I head west. My closest escape from the desert, and perhaps a cult of vampires, is the mountains. ”When in doubt, head to the mountains. ” Thats probably what they would say in this situation. There is safety in the mountains. They, being everyone other than the vampires. Not that Im an expert on the subject, but I am certain vampires don do mountains.

Maybe it is the hiking, altitude, threat of exposure, or a combination of the three; whatever it is, vamps just don dig it.

It is a pleasant day. Not an intense temperature, but the sun can afford to turn it down a notch or two. It is definitely hot enough that it could cause some problems, sun poisoning, dehydration, and heatstroke, to name a few. If not for my darker skin tone, I would be more worried about my total sun exposure. As it is, though, Im willing to take my chances trekking practically naked.

One thing about those vamps they sure are a modest bunch. To think they would do me the kindness of leaving me my briefs. Maybe it is against their code to leave their prey completely nude. Am I still prey if Ive already been preyed upon?

Maybe its that they won leave the dead undressed. Thats it. Thats the code. A real honorable lot, those vamps. Much more decent than bats. Dress the dead, and avoid mountains. Now those are some cult codes I can get behind.

Walking isn bad, certainly not great, just not bad. Actually, I much prefer this leisurely stroll to the nightmarish paralysis I experienced earlier. Though it takes a mile or three, the stiffness in my body is no longer present.

Surprisingly, even in my weakened state, the miles pass quickly, and I feel like Im making good time. Optimistically cutting my destination estimates to a day flat. Maybe even less than that if I had shoes.

Where in the abyss are my shoes? Why couldn shoes be a part of the vampires honor code? Yeah, this isn adding up. It couldn have been vamps. I would be much more dressed if it was them.

Not dwelling on what I can change, I keep walking through the sand dunes barefoot.

Deserts are definitely a bottom-tier environment. Sand is excellent when it is next to water; when it isn , it is next to worst.

Each step is a struggle, and each climbed dune is more or less the same. Every cactus still looks unpleasant. Trees look more like weeds and are as uninviting as the cactus. Thick, prickly, and stubby, offering no shade to anything but themselves.

Why do deserts have to be barren and hostile anyways? This can easily become a paradise with just a body of water and some actual trees. Paradises, now that is a top-tier environment. It would have been sweet if I could have been left stranded in one of those nice paradises.

Countless dunes and cactus… Wait, its cacti, isn it? When a group of cactus clusters, they prefer the more inclusive branding of cacti. Its important to not offend the local fauna when walking through an inhospitable environment. Or any environment for that matter. I am most positive that is survivor basics.

Countless dunes and cacti later, Im still walking. My mouth is a bit parched, and I feel nasty hunger pains. The mountains are getting closer and further away at the same time. My day and a half estimate is increased to at least two days of walking. So I keep walking, hardly noticing the scenery I pass.

”You know, in a way, it is a little bit freeing, having no memories and being abandoned. ” I let myself talk out loud.

”Sure, I have many questions, but I can ignore those for the time being. Right now, all I have to do is walk. And walking isn so bad. Shoot, come to think of it, I don even have to walk. I can sit here all day if I want to. In fact, now that I am thinking of it, Im tired of walking in this blasted, uncomfortably warm sand. Im gonna just wait for the night to walk. ”

”Im sure past me loved long walks at night. Hell, maybe I will be able to recover more strength and be able to walk faster. Might even be able to sprinkle in a jog during this lovely night walk. Nothing beats moonlight miles is what I imagine I used to always say. ”

Satisfied with my rationale, I find a spot in the desert that is a little less sunny and sit with a dune acting as a prop for my back.

My eyes snap back open as the ground around me starts shifting. Grains of sand are shaking and falling as the ground around me rises. The shift at the base of the dune creates a small sand slide that threatens to impede my escape.

Before I can escape whatever situation I sat in, I am surrounded by five scorpions roughly my size. Pincers are snapping. Tails are raised for striking, and all their hissing is out of sync. They have thick chitinous backs that look like layered armor with a color that closely resembles the sand.

Eerily, I get a good look into their mouths as they open and menacingly shut them, which is undoubtedly an intimidation tactic. In a way, it works, as gnarly images of scorpions mouths send shivers throughout my body.

”Hello, friends! ” I say, trying to shake off their uncomfortable appearance. ”Sorry to bother you all this fine day. Im a little lost. I don suppose you know any local vampire cults or sizable bats you could direct me to? ”

More hissing and snapping is their response.

”Thats fine. I figured as such. Well, no worries, Ill just be on my way now. ” I move to get out of their semicircle, and they move to keep me trapped.

They step towards me closer and closer, snapping their claws and hissing louder now.

Behind me is the steep dune I recently descended. I have no illusions that I can climb the dune faster than these inhabitants, so I am forced to either jump over the scorpions or fight. By my estimates, I would probably need to jump as high as ten feet to clear the stingers and as far as fifteen feet distance-wise. Then I need to quickly sprint away, leaving myself no margin for error.

Fighting it is.

Instincts kick in just as quickly as I decide to fight. Pulling my feet out of the piled sand, I find myself settling into a fighting stance. Legs spread apart a little more than shoulder-width. My knees are slightly bent. I have a solid center of gravity and feel completely balanced. My hands are in front, ready to take on anything within reach.

As the closest scorpion scuttles forward, I pivot and place a powerful kick to the scorpions face. Undoubtedly underestimating my strength and speed, the scorpion is caught off guard and flinches back with the shock of pain. ”Sons of scorpions! ”slips out audibly as I feel the frailty of my exposed foot making contact with my targets hard exoskeleton.

Shrugging off the pain, I note that I should not rely on my hands or feet as my primary weapon in this fight. Before the remaining killer bugs can close the circle on me, I use the opening my initial attack gives to sprint out of their trap.

Giving myself some space and no longer surrounded, I feel a calmness wash over me. ”I got this. A few oversized bugs will not be bringing this nameless wanderer down ”.

Sparks of my former life kick in as I, again, get into a fighting stance. This one is more fluid than the first stance. Im ready to react in this stance, turning the opponents strike to my advantage. I keep calm, taking in all that is around me. My stance and positioning adjust as the scorpions enclose.

One of the scorpions feeling confident, strikes first.

A tail with a razor-sharp stinger launches toward me. Reflexively, I step to the side, and before I could register my next step, my hand already has a firm grip on the tail below the stinger.

The scorpion simultaneously tries to pull back its tail and cut my leg with a viscous oversized claw.

Sensing the claw strike coming, my legs step back. My step not only leaves the claw range but also drags the scorpion in the process.

Theres a moment of enlightenment as I realize the bugger is lighter than I expected.

I look at my lovely weapon, back towards the predators, and then back at my weapon. Inspiration rushes in, and a plan starts to form.

Grinning like a fool, I whip my hand holding the tail in a windmill motion bringing the screeching beast to an abrupt crash on the sand behind me.

Still not letting go of the creature, I reverse the motion and bring the disoriented scorpion to a crash in front of me. As the scorpion impacts the sand for a second time, I feel all fight within the creature cease. An instant later, the tiniest sense of power rushes through my body, surging around my cores.

Seeing their pack member slammed into the sand before them, the remaining scorpions pause for a moment to avoid being a victim of the ill-fated bugs impact. Slam might be a strong word; the blasted sand is a no-good pillow of natures bed.

Still, it was enough to kill the creature in hand, giving me now a ball and chain of the scorpion variety. And since I am in the business of creating weapons, I add an imaginative plus five to strength and dexterity. The weapon in hand, if only mentally, becomes even deadlier.

Swinging my Ball and Chain of Stinging Scorpion Claws above my head, I take a more aggressive attack stance. When this fight is over, I will have to conceive a better name for my weapon.

Weapon in hand, I take the initiative in the fight.

Stepping forward, I bring the Chain of Scorpion that is swinging over my head down with all my strength on the first attacker to get in range. With a satisfying thud, the hit lands on the head of the now concussed creature. The impact is followed by my left arm grabbing the tail of the dazed foe. Dragging my second scorpion behind me, I continue to spin my newly named Scorpion Chain of Concussion above my head.

The three remaining scorpions, in response, take a more coordinated approach as they step into the fray together. Their pincers and stingers are at the ready. It doesn matter. I have become a sandstorm of movement, letting the momentum of the duel swinging Scorps of Debilitating Power dictate my next flurry of attacks.

The momentum of my swinging weapons transfers into a spinning attack. I aim at the creature on my left. At the apex of my swing, I slightly decrease the speed of my right hand so that my left hand can catch up to it. And then, as if I was swinging a massive ball of wrecking, I let loose the power on my target.

It is a clean hit. The colossal impact hits the scorpion with enough force to collide with its fellow pack member in the middle. Im rewarded with loud cracks of chitin snapping and the feeling of renewal rushing through my core. One swing knocks out two scorpions.

Letting the momentum of my swing carry me a couple of steps to my right, Im now directly in front of the last scorpion. The largest of the bunch and what I assume to be the alpha.

It attacks furiously as both claws are snatching at my legs. However, I dodge to the left, narrowly avoiding being caught by a claw. My trailing Scorpion Whip, however, gets caught in the combo of attacks. As the alphas claws snap down on my weapon, its stinger shoots forward lightning fast with much more range than expected.

Alph, expecting me to step back to avoid the claws, overcompensated with its actual attack. Had I stepped back, I would have been hit. Fortunately for me, Ive always been more of a sidestepper. Instead of hitting me with the tail, the scorpion is now tangled with my weapon and has overextended itself.

I don hesitate. I jerk my right arm just enough to bring the tangled creature into striking distance. With a powerful windmill motion, the scorpion in my left arm descends upon the alphas body. My aim isn perfect, and I only manage to crush a couple of its legs. Instinctively the predator attacks the cause of its pain.

Even with its injuries, Alph can still launch a vicious counter-attack at the weapon that just hit it. With Alph focusing on the Scorpion Whip, I bring the weapon in my right arm down onto its head.

The refreshing sense in my core lets me know the alpha is dead. Without giving the other two unconscious attackers time to recover, I similarly end their lives.

Possibly a coven of witches bitter about my scathing remarks on their brewery. No witch wants to be told how to brew their potions. When a confident potion connoisseur walks into their shop demanding better, there will be consequences. It is just like them to leave a picky customer in a prickly situation. I can practically hear them cackling. Just like they say, witches be witching.

My thoughts drift as I get to harvesting the scorpions. As rewarding as it is, the unpleasant task is not something I want to be entirely present for. Guts and goop poor out as I cut apart valuable resources from four of the scorpions. The alpha scorpion I keep mostly intact as I remove its innards.

After an hour of gross work, I am left with five stingers, ten claws, five large exoskeleton plating, some meat-like sustenance, and a sled to carry all my material in.

Packing my gear into the sled, I walk a couple of miles putting some distance between me and the butchered remains of the scorpions. If there are any large scavengers, I don want to get into another fight. I stop walking only when I get to more solid ground with some of the small tree bushes. Before I get settled, though, I do a quick check of my area to make sure that there aren any ambushing predators.

I estimate that maybe five hours have passed since I found myself lying in the desert and only thirty minutes since the scorpion encounter. The mid sun is now positioned above the mountains. Probably giving me an hour or two of daylight.

Im hungry, thirsty, and tired and although the fight with the scorpions was quick, my body feels drained from the adrenaline. Lack of nourishment and excessive expenditure of energy is taking their toll. On top of that, the sun has gotten increasingly hot, and only now is it beginning to cool back down. Even if I want to continue walking, I won make it much longer if I continue to push on like this.

Now is as good a time as ever to rest.

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