I woke up on the cold hard ground, dazed and confused. The sky was starting to dim. I looked around me and gasped. Aloysius was gone- and so was Brannagh.
"Ardon! Ardon!" I yelled. I crawled over to his limp form and shook him roughly. "Please, Ardon, wake up- Aloysius took Brannagh!"
His eyes opened a little and he blinked at me in surprise. "Saoirse, go back to sleep," he grumbled. I groaned in frustration and tried to push him up into a sitting position.
"Wake up, Ardon, please! You're sister is gone!" I cried again.
Now he could hear me. "What?" he gasped. He stood and looked about us, fury building on his face when he realized what had happened. I stood with him, trembling, and snapped.
"This is my fault," I whispered. My entire body had gone cold, numb. "We need to get to Hybris, we need to find help."
"The hell we do," Ardon hissed. "Then what? They take you as payment for their 'help,' and I've lost both of you? We need to go after her!"
I closed my eyes and tried to breathe. "No. We don't even know where they've gone. The people there are our best shot. If it looks like we can't trust them, we'll run, but we need to try. We don't know this world well enough to find her alone!"
He closed his eyes too, trying to calm down. "No, you're right, you're right," he murmured, shaking his head. He took a deep breath. "I'm goin' to kill that deformed pony if it's the last thing I do," he said coldly, his nostrils flaring. "Let's go."
He took my hand and we continued down the road at a harsh pace. It would be two hours til we arrived if we kept going like this, but I needed to stop and breathe. He could tell I was slowing when I tugged on his hand and he turned to look at me. "I'm sorry," he breathed. "We can walk at your pace until you're ready." He was breathing a little heavily, but I was trying not to gasp as I nodded and pulled out my canteen.
"I'm so sorry," I panted in between gulps. "Just, just go without me."
"And lose you, too?" he growled. "No, thank you, just concentrate on breathing and we'll go when you're ready."
I was too breathless to argue further so I just nodded and tried not to guzzle all the water at once. When my legs started to feel less like weights and more like jelly, I nodded at him and we started walking at his pace, which meant I was jogging.
As we traveled the last hour to the town, I could feel my heart breaking into pieces. Brannagh, Ardon, and I had known each other since childhood. She was my best friend, and because of me, she was gone. What would they do with her? Would they hurt her? Sell her? Was she going to be kept by them to work? I shuddered with darker thoughts that ran through my mind, unable to give my worries words. I started crying as we neared the edges of the little town and had to stop again.
Ardon pulled me close and patted me gently on the back as I sobbed into his shirt. "I know, I'm worried too, but it's not your fault, Saoirse, it's not your fault," he murmured, guessing my thoughts again. "He drugged us and he took her. It's his fault."
I tried to speak through my tears, but I couldn't get any words out. "It doesn't matter," he told me, pushing me back gently to look me in the eye. I couldn't help but be aware of his warm hands on my shoulders, adding the colour of shame to my guilt. "Try to be brave, try to look on the bright side. We're goin' to get help, even if we have to make them help us, and we're goin' to find Brannagh and bring her the gift of vengeance. Perhaps we could bring her his head on a plate, like the kings of old?" he tried to joke. I tried to smile, and we continued on down the road into town.
The first thing we did was ask for directions from a lady who was working in her garden with a toddler. She kindly told us how to get to the inn, so we followed her instructions and came upon it shortly.
"This is the best place to get information," he said before we walked in. "I know you hate crowds, so just stay close and leave it to me."
The inn was huge. I had no intention of straying. There were people everywhere, and not just humans- little people a foot shorter than me took up one table. They had tan skin, ruddy cheeks, curly hair, and pointed ears. At another table these huge hulking things sat. They had curling horns and were very furry. Most of them only wore pants over the thick brown or black fur all over their bodies. Their heads were big, too, larger than a human's but with distorted human features. They seemed to be almost bear-like, except for the horns. At another table was a group of the most beautiful men and women I'd ever seen. They had white feathery wings on their backs, neatly flattened against their bodies so they wouldn't take up the whole room. Their faces were flawless- though their skin varied from pure ebony to snow white, all of them had identically shaped eyes and pointed ears. I realized my mouth was hanging open, so I closed it and looked around for Ardon.
I panicked slightly, thinking I'd lost him, but he'd realized I wasn't following him at the same time. I felt a strong hand take mine and I turned to see his beautiful eyes looking at me a little impatiently. "Come, little fire," he lilted. "Don't stray."
He kept his large hand firmly grasped around my own and tugged me through the crowd until we reached the tidy bar. "Hello, friend," a pleasant voice said. I looked up at the bartender into storm grey eyes. I felt hypnotized, like I couldn't look away, but he dropped my gaze with a wink and I noticed he was studying me. I studied him, too. He looked human enough, though he was very pale and his canines seemed a little too long and sharp for my comfort. Whatever he was, he was clearly a carnivore. "What can I get you?"
"Some information," Ardon said, just as pleasantly. "We're new around here and we'd just like to get our bearin's. This would be Hybris, wouldn' it now?"
The bartender gave us a shrewd look. "How new are you? New to Hybris...or new to this world?" he added in a low voice.
Ardon sighed unhappily, and the man took that as our response. "If you're that kind of new, you need to go see Cheveyo. He's over at that table in the corner." He pointed out a man with red-brown skin and thick black hair sitting by a woman with similar features. Ardon thanked the bartender and took my hand again, leading me to the corner table.
As we got closer I could tell he was definitely human. His ears were round and he looked to be about thirty. His chin was round and stubborn, his cheekbones high. He looked very proud, almost regal. The woman beside him was incredibly beautiful. Her hair was as long as mine, but lustrous and black. She had full lips and the same high cheekbones and sense of majesty about her.
"Excuse me," Ardon said, bowing his head slightly. "Are you Cheveyo?"
"I am Cheveyo. Who are you?" the man intoned in a baritone voice.
"My name is Ardon and this is Saoirse- we're, er, new to this place, and the bartender sent us to you."
The man looked us over and nodded. "Please, sit. This is my wife, Catori. When you became new here, where did you find yourself?"
"We were in a silver wood. We were found by a man who was half horse. He," Ardon paused and frowned.
Cheveyo cocked his head to the side. "They helped you?"
"And what did they want in return?" the man continued.
"My sister," Ardon hissed, his fists clenching under the table.
Cheveyo nodded, an apology in his reply. "The centaurs are a harsh, wild people. They do not give freely, they do not help without a price. You want your sister back, so you must find something to trade."
"We have nothing," Ardon said, defeated.
"You may be too late already," Catori interrupted. "The centaurs are on their way to the Meninxo to sell. She will fetch a high price there as a slave or worse."
I started trembling again, I couldn't help it. "Who are the Meninxo?" I blurted out.
She looked at me with pity on her face. "They are an abomination to behold, I fear. They walk and speak like a man, but their faces are twisted and cruel, their bodies gruesome and fierce. If the girl is sold there, it will not be long before they break her."
I buried my face in my arms and tried to hold back the sense of hopelessness and despair that overwhelmed me. "There is still a chance, though," Ardon argued. "Please, can you help us?"
"We will not go with you," Cheveyo said. "But we will help you in any way we can. I am the leader of this small town- I can get you what you need. Your journey will be difficult. If you wish, I can show you the way back to your world and you can grieve over your sister in the comfort of your home- it would be your best hope for yourselves. Even if you make it all the way to the Meninxo, you will most likely be enslaved or killed."
"We have to try." The sentence surprised me as it slipped from my trembling lips. I looked around the table at the other three. "We have to," I repeated.
"We nothin'," Aldon said, frowning at me. "You heard what he said- he knows the way home. You're goin' back, and I'll return with my sister as soon as I can."
"No!" I growled. "No. I'm coming with you."
"You'll need weapons, and training," Cheveyo said. "Can either of you cast spells?"
"Magic?" I asked, surprised. "There's no such thing."
Catori gave me a small smile. "Here there is," she said. "If you will allow for the arrangements...I think we have enough masters here to collapse time enough for you both to learn and train. I will have to check, and they will take some convincing, but I know a few who have been aching to try that spell for decades. There is a chance that you'll be lost in time, of course."
Ardon looked at me, slightly worried. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
I took a deep breath. "Whatever it takes."