I awake coughing and spluttering, my face plunged into rushing water. Strong hands are holding me there - I struggle, but I can’t break free of their grip. I strain my neck muscles, trying desperately to pull my head up, but I can’t quite move far enough. I can’t breathe, I’m drowning, I’m drowning -
Air. The same strong arms pull me up, and suddenly I’m staring into an angular, bearded face, which beams at me.
“Morning!” it cries.
It drops me unceremoniously, and I tumble in a coughing, gagging heap onto the soft grass of a riverbank. The moment I have air in my lungs again, I spring back to my feet, my knife in my hands, and lunge at my foe.
He’s on horseback, or so it seems at first. But even as I swing my knife, I realise the horse part is actually his lower body, merging into a human torso where the animal’s neck could be. It’s the perfect description of a creature from legend I’ve only ever seen in Harry Potter.
The centaur is quicker than me, twisting the knife out of my hand with a burly arm before I can plunge it into his stomach. With his other fist, he clubs me hard around the temple. Pain explodes through my skull, and as I fall to the ground, he pins me down with a single stony hoof.
“Just calm down for a second, psycho,” he growls. I struggle – I’m not giving up this easily, not after everything we’ve endured - but he presses harder, crushing the air from my lungs.
“I said calm down!”
Out of options, I lie still, staring up at the impossible creature. Though he’s holding me down, he doesn’t seem aggressive.
“I’ll calm down when you let me up,” I retort, unwilling to back down so easily, but the sound comes out choked and weak. He holds my gaze for a few moments and slowly removes his hoof. Warily, I get to my feet.
“Why were you trying to drown me?” I demand, trying to re-establish my composure.
“I wasn’t drowning you,” the centaur replies gruffly, folding his arms. “I was waking you up. Nothing else was working.”
I nod slowly, still not completely convinced.
“What have you done with Hayley?”
There’s a snort of laughter from a bush off to the left. We both turn to look at it, and Hayley emerges.
“You two are hilarious!” she giggles. We glare at her. “Oh come on,” she continues, walking over to us. “You should listen to yourselves.” She takes the centaur’s arm. “Felix, this is Iain,” she says, putting his hand in mine and forcing us to shake. “Iain, this is Felix. Now stop posturing and let’s have a civilised conversation.”
We both back down, but continue to eye each other distrustfully.
“How long was I out?” I ask.
“Couple of days,” Iain replies, wiping his hoof along the grass. “At least since I found you two. This one woke up the next morning,” he says, ruffling Hayley’s hair, “but you took some more persuading.”
“He’s like us,” Hayley adds, “But not from our world – or the fire world, either. I asked.”
“I’m a Stallroth boy,” Iain says proudly. “You should see it one day. Most beautiful sunsets in Mythicia.”
Hayley and I look at each other and shrug. “Alien centaurs, why not?” I say with a grin, and the tension between Iain and me is dispelled.
Hayley and Iain have set up camp on the riverbank - Iain’s got a tent of his own, a large leather affair. Quite how he sleeps in it with four legs is beyond me, but I don’t ask.
It’s a pleasant world we’ve landed on, with a warm climate and wild grouse for the hunting. I’m sitting by the campfire with Hayley later - Iain’s out collecting firewood.
It’s not an awkward silence so much as a contented one. After a while, Hayley moves over to me. “I never got the chance to say... thanks.”
“For what?” I reply.
“For saving me. I know you carried me when the smoke got me on the fire world. I’d be dead without you.”
“Well, I guess that makes us even then,” I say with a smile.
“Still,” she says, and suddenly kisses me on the cheek. “Thank you.” And then she disappears back to her tent.
I’m still blushing for quite a while later, and the stars seem brighter that evening. Iain comes back with a bundle of sticks under one arm and drops them by the fire.
“Back home, people like you are just legends,” I tell him.
“My people say the same of you,” he replies, smiling through his beard. He has an odd way of talking – at times formal, almost archaic, but then he lapses into more modern expressions, as though he can’t quite settle on one culture or another. “But then I guess we’re both revising our idea of normal.”
He bends his knees into a half-squat, and I realise this is his equivalent of sitting. I wonder if it’s strange, essentially spending your entire life on horseback. But then I realise it’s all he’s ever known, so we must be the strange ones.
“You speak my tongue,” Iain says suddenly. “How can that be, when you’re from another world?”
“I don’t know,” I sigh. “There’s so much about all of this that I don’t understand. I’m kind of hoping the voice will clear some of it up, if we ever find it.”
“Hayley told me much of your story while you slept,” Iain said, nodding. “I heard the same voice myself, in a cave on a world made of glass.”
“What do you think it is?” I ask him.
Iain chuckles. “I haven’t the foggiest. But it’s a direction to ride in, isn’t it?”
I sleep well that night, and dream good dreams, of home - apart from once, when I wake at an unearthly hour of the morning, the voice from the cave ringing in my ears.
“Beyond the burning world,
Through the realm of ice,
To the Gates of Hell itself.”
The fire world was... gruelling, to say the least. Even with our years of travel, it was the toughest obstacle either of us had overcome in all the time since we left home. Ice will be next, and I have no idea how we’ll deal with that - and as for the Gates of Hell... I guess we’ll just have to take each trial as it comes.
As the three of us sleep on that peaceful world, far away, across the multiverse, a shadow falls on a field of snow. From the shadow, voices can be heard. Chittering. Screeching. Screaming.
Out of it, something emerges. Something old, and evil, and so unfathomably hungry. It looks to the cold, unfeeling sky, and howls.
Darkness lies ahead of us, and behind us. Our circle of firelight dwindles. The darkness is creeping in.