Rain fell in thick sheets, the fat droplets soaking through Kestrel's clothes to splatter on the ground and splashing up forcefully to wet her even more. She stumbled along with her hands bound together and bare feet slipping every other step. Sodden locks of light brown hair smothered her face.
Kestrel felt like she was being waterboarded under the world's largest showerhead. "I can't breathe," she gasped, stopping in her tracks to shake her head like a wet dog. She managed to free her mouth of hair and tilted her head up, chest heaving.
Now, she felt like she was gargling water from the world's largest showerhead. Kestrel spat and sputtered.
"Are you a drowning turkey? Keep moving." Kestrel's companion jerked on the rope that connected to the one tied around her wrists. The tug wasn't forceful, but it was enough to make her lose her footing. She fell awkwardly, one knee slamming into the ground while her hands made a desperate grab for the rope.
"God fucking damn it," Kestrel hissed through gritted teeth while her companion said, "Ah."
For the first time, she was thankful for the rain. The cold numbed her enough that she didn't feel the full impact, but what mattered more was whether she had broken skin.
"Are you bleeding?"
She passed her shivering fingers down her leg. "No."
"Just lightly damaged goods then. Get up. We're close."
Kestrel slowly rose to her feet and her companion watched, making no move to help. She tested her weight on the battered leg, decided it was just a bad bruising, and bowed low, bending at the waist.
"My most sincere apologies for damaging your goods," Kestrel said, eyes carefully downcast.
Her companion was silent for a beat before saying, "I'm sure you'll still sell fine." He turned away and, after checking his watch, set off at a quicker pace than before. Kestrel could only limp after him to keep from being dragged along.
They passed by so many nondescript, gray-toned buildings that Kestrel almost wanted to ask if he was leading them in circles when she noticed a spire in the distance, growing the slightest bit larger with each step. It was as gray as everything else but instead of tapering into a single point, it looked like it was topped by a three-pointed star.
Recognizing the spire gave Kestrel more chills than the freezing rain beating down on her. She had only seen it once before the image was destroyed to keep any information from leaking.
Three months ago, Kestrel was given a mission, the briefest glimpse of a picture, and a single name. She was told it would be a solo mission, so she was unsure if the person ferrying her to this location shared the same faction.
Unlikely, Kestrel thought to herself as she watched the back of the man in front of her. Vampire hunters are a lonely sort.
Two months ago, Kestrel found herself willingly sucked into a human trafficking ring with the help of a few underworld compatriots who owed her a favor. Human trafficking was an insanely lucrative business, even more so when trafficking humans with mixed blood. Being a quarter-elf, Kestrel was initially given special treatment, but most buyers were upset that she didn't display visible signs of her so-called "exotic" blood: humans with red, purple, or yellow eyes were sold for up to ten times their weight in gold.
Kestrel with her light green eyes was beaten like a mutt and took a month to heal. Her back still ached from the experience and in the moment, she considered a career change from hunting vampires to fighting crime.
But, she thought, I technically am putting a stop to a certain type of crime. Blood farming, the insidious and far more dangerous sibling to human trafficking, was a phenomenon unique to vampires. Vampires would keep humans as walking ready-to-eat meals, but a single careless bite could lead to the creation of dozens of feral younglings that would ravage the entire immediate town or city and drain it dry of blood.
Kestrel had put a stop to blood farming twice before. All she needed to do was kill the master, and they were often unsuspecting if she infiltrated their sanctuary as a contribution to their farm.
But something about the air felt different this time. Kestrel would never bet on luck to save her life, but the weather seemed like it was trying to force her to stop. This podunk of a town was also unusually run-down, desolate, and very isolated from any surrounding larger populations. And the final scoop on Kestrel's three-tiered sundae of unease was the spire with the three-pointed star.
Triads were a sign of very bad luck. Things existed in dualities: light and shadow, fire and ice, life and death, even left and right. To introduce a third party into a pair would be introducing chaos.
Kestrel could see the damned star up close now. She and her companion had slowed as they approached the spire set dead in the middle of an empty courtyard and were now looking up right at it. It was probably large enough to impale straight through her if it fell at that very second. Kestrel grimaced at the thought.
"Well," her companion said finally. "Here you are."
Kestrel looked around. She hadn't noticed when the concrete road turned into broken tile with weeds sprouting from nearly every crack. Beyond the spire was high, mossy tone wall with a rusted gate that looked like it would topple if she kicked it hard enough. Surrounding them on the other side was a dense, dark forest.
"Isn't there supposed to be, I don't know, a hand-off?" she asked.
The man shrugged. "Sure," he said and handed her his end of the rope. Kestrel stood, dumbfounded, as he patted her once on the shoulder.
"I've only heard rumors of what lies beyond those walls but good luck," he said quietly and looked her in the eyes for the first time. Kestrel could see a flicker of genuine pity before the rain trickling off the rim of his black hat washed his expression back to solemn neutrality.
Kestrel approached the gate as the man turned and made his way back down the road they'd just come from. "What the hell am I supposed to do now?" she muttered as she looked up at the rusted gate. It was low enough to jump, but Kestrel didn't think that looked very in-character for someone who was supposed to be a slave girl, and her leg still hurt, so she really didn't want to try.
"Hello?" A soft voice came from behind the stone wall and startled Kestrel, who instinctively lowered into a defensive stance.
"Who's there?" she barked then winced at her commanding tone. Slave girl, I have to act like a slave girl, she reminded herself internally as she warily sidled up toward the gate to peek at who hid behind the wall adjacent.
She was greeted by the sight of a hooded stranger wearing a fine, dark cloak made of the same greased material as the earlier man's coat. Rain slid off as easily as water off a seal pelt, but the longer pieces of yellow hair that dangled out of the hood were soaked.
The person raised their head just enough to give Kestrel a small nod. Kestrel could make out young, feminine features and held back a sigh of relief. This must be the slave girl sent out to receive me, Kestrel thought. So it really is a blood farm.
They stood in silence for a long moment, the slave girl unmoving and Kestrel waiting awkwardly.
"Um, so-" Kestrel began right when the girl said, "Why don't you run?"
Kestrel could only blink in surprise as the words sunk in. Her heart warmed to realize that the other girl was trying to help. "Run where? And like this?" Kestrel waved her bound arms at the surrounding forest and gestured to her bare feet and the soggy rags that used to be clothing.
"Right." The girl sighed and reached out, hooking a finger around one of the rusty bars and pulling the gate open with a long, loud creak. She opened it wide enough for Kestrel to slip through and didn't wait before she started to walk off deeper into the estate.
Kestrel tried to hurry after her, but her slight limp caused her to fall behind. That, and all the twigs and stones underfoot were starting to bother her. The girl finally noticed how far Kestrel has lagged back when the mansion started to come into view, broken windows and overrun ivy visible through the screen of trees.
The girl waited with her arms crossed. Kestrel could almost imagine seeing her tap her foot impatiently. This snooty bitch.
When Kestrel got within hearing distance, the other girl began to speak. "You can go in through the front door there. It's unlocked. There's a kitchen on the first floor and I think there's food somewhere. You're welcome to look in any room for clothes. And-"
Kestrel had kept approaching while the girl rambled on and when she got close enough, she intentionally slipped, arms flailing but taking care not to fall on her bruised leg. Kestrel reached out a hand, aiming to grab onto the girl's arm but she nimbly stepped back, unexpectedly agile.
Kestrel landed gracelessly in a puddle, the breath knocked out of her. "Oof," she wheezed.
"You alright there?" the girl asked, hesitating before reaching out her hand. Kestrel grasped it gratefully, surprised to find it warm as the girl pulled her up.
"Yes, although I might be, um-" What did he call me? "A damaged good."
"That's fine. It won't matter." She offered Kestrel her arm for support, having noticed the way Kestrel leaned heavily on one side.
"Your master is very forgiving then?" Kestrel prodded as she looped her arm through the other girl's. She seemed to have no issues supporting a majority of Kestrel's weight.
"What? I-I suppose."
Kestrel noted the stutter. "If he's not, why did you ask if I would run earlier?" Kestrel faked a shudder, reinforced by her real shivers from being wet and cold. "Would he have chased me down for sport if I did?"
"I don't know what the word is out there, but you've heard wrong." The girl's voice sounded indignant, but her expression was still concealed by the large hood that shadowed her face.
"But the man who brought me here told me it was dangerous," Kestrel said, gripping the girl's arm tighter. She was playing up her fear to try and find the girl's pulse, hoping she wasn't squeezing too hard.
"Look, it'll be fine and if you're that nervous, I'll come inside with you," the girl said, and Kestrel sighed with relief after finding a faint pulse from the girl's wrist.
"I would appreciate that," Kestrel said as they approached the mansion. It was a massive, ornate structure that must have been beautiful in its prime. Rusted wrought iron framed the windows and overgrown undergrowth covered every wall on the first floor. Some shutters were hanging off their frame, rattling in the wind. The door was made of thick, dark wood, outfitted with a brass door knocker that matched the handle. Kestrel could see the remnants of intricate carvings in the wood that have long since worn away with time.
Pushing open the door, the girl suddenly released Kestrel's arm as they crossed the threshold. "There's a bathroom upstairs. I'll be in the kitchen if you need me." She strode off into the darkness, water droplets trailing off her cloak like a second cape.