Dio exhaled slowly, letting out the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. "Why does that make so much sense?"
Kestrel refused to look at her and continued to walk briskly. They had just entered the outskirts of town, and the streets were void of all their usual activity. The only movement in the area was the torrent of rainwater rushing down along the sidewalk.
Kestrel held up a hand and Dio almost slipped at their abrupt stop. "The tavern," Kestrel said.
"This way." Dio usually kept to herself and the house was far enough removed that she never ran into people, but she did occasionally venture out to town to stock up on supplies. The local tavern was the one place she frequented every visit, not for their crap drinks but for picking up any sliver of gossip or news.
Even the most outlandish rumors were still invaluable information for people on the run.
Dio led Kestrel silently as she slipped through the hidden alleys, retracing the shortcut that she'd taken many times before until they arrived in front of a run-down shack of a storefront. The building looked just as dingy as the shops surrounding it, but instead of being covered with boards, light and laughter filtered out the open windows.
The front door was left ajar, though it didn't look like it wouldn't fit into the frame anyway. Above it hung a paint-chipped sign that read "Jade Junction Tavern," swinging haphazardly in the wind.
Dio reached up and gently tapped a knuckle against it. "For good luck," she said to answer Kestrel's questioning look. "The Jade Junk gets scrappy some nights. Watch your back and your purse, if you have one."
Dio led the way inside, hurriedly ushering Kestrel in to push the door shut as best she could. The bottom corner jammed into the soft, wet dirt and Dio hoped it was enough to keep the wind from blowing it open.
"Let's sit at the bar," Dio said, brushing off her hands as she turned around, but Kestrel had already disappeared. Did she just . . . ditch me?
Dio's eyes quickly darted around, scanning every cloaked figure hunched over a table or cup. The storm seemed to be keeping people in their homes, but the tavern was still more crowded than Dio was used to seeing. There were at least twelve other patrons, most of them solo or in pairs except for one party of three, and at least half of them appeared to be unarmed travelers.
Dio suddenly felt like she'd spent too much time dithering by the entrance and hurried over to the bar. She slipped into one of the well-worn leather stools and tried to keep from glancing around or looking suspicious.
"Hello," Dio said, raising her hand to get the attention of the barkeep. "Can I get-" A hand closed around her wrist and swiftly brought it flat against the sticky counter.
"Hey Brook." The person who'd grabbed Dio spoke in a familiar, soft voice. She didn't need to look to know it was Kestrel, especially not after the barkeep's dark blue eyes brightened with interest after he turned around.
"Kestrel," he greeted her warmly in a deep, rich voice. The crow's feet at the corners of his eyes crinkled as he grinned, leaning his arm onto the counter. "How can I help you? And your guest?" He glanced briefly to Dio, his gaze lingering knowingly.
Dio was gripped by an intense urge to run away. What am I doing with vampire hunters? she thought as her silent panic mounted. She couldn't let Dorian catch her, but the vampire hunters also seemed like a promise of certain death.
"Do you want anything? You can put it on my tab." Kestrel interrupted Dio's spiral. She had released Dio's wrist but kept her hand resting on Dio's arm. The light touch was briefly reassuring until Dio remembered what Kestrel had told her.
Succubus, Dio reminded herself, slipping her hand out from underneath Kestrel's. Her touch can charm.
Kestrel was looking at her funny, and Dio finally realized she'd taken too long to answer. "No, no. I'm good," she said hastily.
Kestrel smiled up at Brook the bartender. "Just give me something hard and iced. Two, please." Dio frowned and Kestrel said, "What? You were going to get something, I heard you."
"Will do, ma'am," Brook said with a nod and turned around to begin working on the drink. Dio couldn't see what he was doing past his broad shoulders, but she could hear ice scraping and glass tinkling.
"You have a tab here?" Dio asked. Kestrel was leaning on the counter with her head propped up on her hand, and she looked sideways at Dio instead of fully turning to face her.
"My subordinate will cover the check when he arrives. The only things I have on me are your clothes and my sword." Kestrel gave Dio the same small smile she'd given Brook, and Dio noticed for the first time how exhausted Kestrel looked. Her light green eyes were bloodshot and lined with dark circles.
"My apologies, ma'am," Brook said as he slid a drink in front of Kestrel. "I need to get fresh ice from the back to make the other one."
"That's fine." She waved him off, and when he disappeared behind a door past the counter, Kestrel pushed the drink in front of Dio. "I'm going to freshen up in the restroom. I feel and look like shit." Kestrel sighed, brushing off the wet locks of brown hair that clung to her face as she stood.
You don't, Dio wanted to say, but the words died on her lips as she remembered again: succubus. She was probably being passively charmed just by hanging around Kestrel.
Dio didn't turn around to watch Kestrel leave and instead eyed the glass in front of her skeptically. She had no clue what it was and when she brought it up to inspect it, a good whiff only confirmed that it was strong alcohol. Dio made a face and set it down.
She'd never been that much of a fan of drinking before she was turned, but while being a vampire elevated every other sense, Dio had quickly found out that her sense of taste had been disappointingly dulled. Of course, it was easier to stomach the alcohol, but the effects of intoxication were also lessened due to her changed physiology.
Dio wrapped both hands around her drink. I should run away, she thought. I really should. Condensation had built up on the glass, slick and cool against her skin. Before, Dio's hands would have been red and burning from the cold but now, she could barely feel it.
Her grip tightened and Dio heard the softest, initial crack as the glass began to give. Immediately, she let go.
Would I be more disappointed in myself if I stayed and got myself killed or if I ran and left her to be hunted by Dorian and his dogs? Dio knew it was just a hypothetical question. The way her heart lurched at the second option gave her the answer as Dio took her first, careful sip. It didn't burn in her mouth nor did it taste as bad as she'd remembered.
This is fine, isn't it? Dio mused into her drink, pressing her lips against the chilled rim of the glass. All I wanted in life was to do good. She stared unseeing at the back wall of the bar, shelves lined with rows of alcohol bottles with varying degrees of fullness. Brook still hadn't returned.
Kestrel hadn't returned either. Where is she? Dio thought, twisting in her seat to look back at the rest of the tavern. She was so distracted by wondering, again, if Kestrel had ditched her that she missed the sound of the front door opening and closing.
Even as footsteps approached the bar, Dio paid them no mind as she counted all the patrons and tried to recall if anyone had joined a group or left. Only when a hand closed around the hilt of her sword to jerk her backward did she finally look behind her.
"Where did you get this?" A deep, impassive voice spoke, almost emotionless, but Dio could sense a threatening edge to his tone. The man had pulled Dio almost entirely off the stool with his other hand gripping painfully hard on her left shoulder. His fingers were inches away from the mark beneath Dio's collarbone, so Dio's hand shot up to grab his wrist.
"Um," Dio said, glancing around to see if anyone had noticed. People looked absorbed in their drink and conversation, and the man was standing close enough to hide most of her body. "Excuse me, what are you doing?"
He leaned down closer, and Dio saw the flash of furious, ice blue eyes glaring at her from underneath his hood. Droplets of water dripped from his cloak down onto Dio's face as he towered over her. "Vampires," he hissed under his breath, "shouldn't be carrying swords."
Dio froze and opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out. Finally, she squeaked, "I'm with Kestrel?" It came out like a question because she wasn't sure of it herself. Where is she? Where is she? Dio glanced around again, but nothing had changed.
"Fine," the man said as he pulled her roughly off her chair and began to drag her toward the door. "Then you're with me now."
Dio could only stumble alongside him, trying not to cause a scene, but he was still pressing his fingers deep into her shoulder in a way that made her wince and grit her teeth.
"Hang on, can we-"
"No," the man growled as he kicked the door open and threw Dio out toward the street. She almost slipped in the rainwater but caught herself in a low crouch as she faced the man who stood in the doorway. Dio had to admit that vampire reflexes were nothing but handy.
The man shoved the door closed behind him and stepped out onto the street. Dio willed herself not to back up, but he stood over six inches taller and she could tell that he hid considerable brawn under all his layers.
"Draw your weapon."
At that, Dio had to scoff. "Who are you to demand things from me?" She put her hands on her hips and leaned forward with a scowl. "And I don't draw my sword on civilians."
He took a menacing step forward and pushed back his hood. His unblinking eyes were locked onto Dio's and his hair, cropped short on the sides, was pure white. "You said you're with Kestrel?" he said as a translucent aura of magic began to gather around his body. "I'm not a civilian."
The magic was a pale blue color and while it was emanated from him in a soft, cloud-like form, it began to gather around his head. Dio first saw the ears take form, followed quickly by a snout, and the magic coursed down his shoulders like the rain itself was freezing on his skin to end in clawed hands.
The memory of the pink smoke hound from before flashed in her mind, but Dio recognized the difference this time in the snow-white hair, canine form, and ice magic. This man was a werewolf. And that probably meant he was a vampire hunter with a vendetta.
He completed his shift, his human body completely encased in a massive, brilliant white wolf down to the teeth, paws, and tail. The only remainder from before were his eyes, flickering pointedly from Dio's face to her sword, back and forth.
She got the hint. Maybe I'll just beat him down with the flat of my blade, she thought as she pulled her weapon from its sheath. Kestrel will probably get mad if I hurt him.
Dio wasn't used to fighting one-handed without a shield, but she readied her sword anyway, leveling it in front of her.
The wolf leaped forward and swiped at her head. Dio leaned backward effortlessly—her quick eyes could read his movements practically before he made them. She felt the frostiness radiate from his ice claws as they passed in front of her face and he landed with a splash, whipping around to face Dio with a snarl, tongue lolling and teeth bared.
Dio was tempted to bare her teeth back at him, but she wasn't entirely comfortable with the idea of her fangs. Instead, she slashed at the air, fast and wide. Dio was sure he could've dodged it, but his paws were planted as he faced her directly.
At the last second, Dio remembered to tilt her wrist so the flat of her blade smacked him across the head. He yelped and stumbled back. Dio forgot to hold back on her strength.
"Oops," she said, dancing forward to look at his snout. Raindrops clung and froze to his fur, but she couldn't see any red staining the white.
He suddenly released his wolf form with a puff of snow as the magic dissipated, appearing in his human form and squatting low to the ground. He hadn't raised his head, but Dio heard him mumble, "I knew it."
Dio sheathed her sword as he looked up, pinning her once again with his intense gaze. He dropped to his knees, staring up at Dio with fear and hope, any hint of his previous anger melted away.
Dio staggered back. She recognized that reverent look and those blue eyes, though they once belonged to a smaller, shorter boy with darker hair.
"I knew you were alive, Master," he whispered as he bowed low to the ground.
Dio felt like she was drowning in the rain. "Jökull," she choked out. He was her former apprentice—and the boy whose sister she loved and killed.