The horses were skittish around both Kestrel and Dio, but they took to Jökull annoyingly fast.
"It's because you're an animal yourself," Kestrel said, only half-joking as she watched him pat them all on the noses while they continued to nudge his hand for more.
The creatures were wind horses, pricey but worth it for their speed. Two of them had a mottled black-and-white pattern and the third was brown, but their light green eyes revealed what magic type they were.
Brook had given Kestrel directions to the nearest stables, which was a twenty-minute walk outside of town. And the only reason Kestrel needed a horse was because the town was too small to need or afford an official fast-travel system: lightning magic was a rare commodity usually reserved for the more populated cities.
With the horses, Brook said they could cut the travel time to the nearest city from six days to one, and they could teleport out of that city to Kestrel's hometown where the vampire hunters headquarters was located.
While Kestrel pored over a map, Dio sighed longingly. Kestrel glanced up to see her staring at Jökull and the horses.
"You can play with them while I try to figure this out," Kestrel said.
"No, I can help you." Dio offered Kestrel a smile, but it looked hollow. "I had a horse once, and it's just been a while."
Kestrel tilted the map to let Dio see, and Dio leaned in. The rain had let up right when they got to the stables, so the sun was peeking through the gray sky. Dio's blonde hair was bright and glossy in the light despite how wet it still was, soaked completely through from her conversation with Jökull in the street.
Gray eyes flitted over the map. "Here," Dio said, pointing. "This is where we are or, at least, right outside."
"Damn," Kestrel muttered. Her guess had been way off.
"What was that?"
"Nothing. Go on."
"Is your sense of direction bad, Kestrel?" Dio's smile was full of humor, but it didn't reach her eyes.
Kestrel rolled her eyes but her lips quirked. "Piss-poor. If they didn't send Jökull out to get me every time, I'd be lost and dead."
"Huh?" Jökull turned his head in Kestrel's direction at the mention of his name. Since their trip was expected to be a short one, the horses were outfitted with extremely minimal tack, just a rein and bridle. He'd long since finished setting them up, so Kestrel couldn't tell why he was still fussing over them.
"Seems you've gotten reliable, Jökull," Dio called out to him. She had a distant look in her eyes and blinked several times before refocusing on the map.
Kestrel gave her a subtle, sideways glance. She wondered if they were officially friendly enough for Kestrel to ask if Dio was doing okay, but Dio spoke before Kestrel could.
"So we're in Earthsbrough." Dio set her finger on the map where a small square was surrounded by a cluster of triangle trees. "And where are you trying to get to?"
Kestrel spent a minute looking before she found it: a circle, indicating a settlement with much higher populations. "This place looks promising."
"Voltspire?" Kestrel caught the frown that flashed across Dio's face before Dio hid it. "That's west."
"Perfect," Kestrel said as she pushed the map toward Dio. "You should hang onto that. It's better suited with you than either of us." Kestrel tipped her head at Jökull, who was hugging the brown horse around its thick neck as the other two nuzzled his hair.
"Horse whisperer." Kestrel smacked Jökull on the shoulder, but the bulk of his muscle stung her hand more than it hurt him. "We're moving."
Kestrel grabbed the reins of the three horses, and they resisted for a moment, tugging their heads away. Her grip tightened. She met their pale green eyes with her own, unblinking, and pushed magic through her hand as she tapped them each on the forehead.
Succubus magic could charm more than humanoids, but Kestrel's wind affinity also made the horses meeker and more willing to obey.
"Okay," Kestrel said as she dropped the reins. "They should be fine."
Jökull immediately clambered onto the brown horse, completely graceless, and he grinned from his perch and hugged the horse's neck. Dio hesitated before reaching out but she, too, hopped on with a much more fluid movement.
Kestrel bit back a sigh as she climbed onto her horse. They were usually too tall for her, but she could manage after suffering through the undignified scrambling. This time was especially difficult because the horse lacked a saddle, and Dio and Jökull averted their eyes when Kestrel finally mounted.
"We'll push until an hour after sunset and camp for the night. If we pick up around sunrise, we can get to Voltspire by sunset tomorrow," Kestrel said to break the awkward silence.
"Sounds good," Dio said in a soft voice. Both she and Jökull were watching Kestrel expectantly.
"You want me to lead?"
"On second thought," Dio said as her horse started forward. "I better do it."
They rode in silence for the next few hours. A lightly worn path cut through the dense forest from the small town to the nearest city, so they decided to move in a single file in case another traveler needed to pass. Dio took the lead and Jökull followed in the rear, half-shifted with his wolf ears on a constant swivel as creatures in the forest skittered about unseen.
The sun slipped behind the cover of trees, casting long, dappled shadows across the forest floor. The greenery was tinted golden-orange from the final, stretching rays of the sunset, then everything was dipped in inky darkness as silent shadows stole over the land.
Kestrel was put on high-alert and sat up straighter as her ability to see her surroundings narrowed down to the horses in front of and behind her. Brook's water magic healed her physical injuries, but her magic would take longer to restore.
She couldn't afford to cast a darkvision spell yet, especially since Kestrel anticipated needing to use her wind magic, and maintaining both at the same time always drained her.
"Kestrel," Jökull called out from behind, almost as if he could read her mind. They'd worked together more times than Kestrel could remember, so Kestrel wasn't surprised when he spoke first.
Dio, however, startled. Jökull had been the first to speak since they discussed their marching order hours ago. "Should we stop soon?" she asked, turning back to face Kestrel and Jökull.
Kestrel hesitated. She said earlier that they should continue past sunset, but shadow beasts were stronger in the dark, and Kestrel was effectively useless in battle if she couldn't see.
Dio and Jökull can see in the dark, Kestrel rationalized. We'll be fine.
"Not yet," Kestrel decided. "Do you have darkvision, Dio?"
Dio's voice floated through the darkness as she spoke forward. "Just a bit. Limited range, I think, since I'm not a full vampire."
Kestrel nodded to herself, satisfied. Convenient that I'm sandwiched between these two, Kestrel thought.
The horses moved softly through the forest. Rather than making the typical clopping of hooves, wind horses were considerably stealthier. Their footfalls sounded like a concentrated breeze and the sound of whooshing air rustled the leaves and undergrowth instead crunching them underfoot.
They continued at a steady trot, spurred by Kestrel's wind magic that guided their momentum. Silence enveloped them, but as opposed to the comforting sounds of a lively forest from earlier, this quiet felt like bated breath and watchful eyes.
Paranoia crept up Kestrel's back. She couldn't shake off the feeling that something was either watching or trailing them—or both.
"Jökull." Dio's voice cut through the illusory stillness. She spoke in a low voice, but it was enough to rattle Kestrel out of her growing fear.
"Yes, Master. I sense it too," came Jökull's reply.
Kestrel stiffened and her fingers brushed the metal band on her arm, ready to pull it off and snap Reed into shape.
"We should stop off soon, Kestrel." Dio was still speaking in the same light, hushed tone. She was almost drowned out by the rustling of the three horses.
"Sure thing," Kestrel said, forcing herself to keep her voice steady but a light tremor betrayed her nerves. "If you see a spot, just head over."
"There's a rock outcropping about sixty feet ahead. That okay?"
"Mhm," Kestrel hummed her assent, not trusting herself to speak. Jökull was oddly quiet during the whole exchange. Kestrel turned, but she could only make out his white hair in the dark, faintly glowing with a pale blue aura as his ice magic drifted through the air.
Dio hopped off her horse before they reached the rock and startled Kestrel by thrusting the reins into her hands. Kestrel's horse huffed, disgruntled by the sudden stop.
Jökull's horse also jerked and stomped in a circle as the rider dismounted. "Kestrel," Jökull said, appearing out of the darkness by Kestrel's knee. "Will you also watch my horse for me?"
In Kestrel's hands, the wind horses were docile and obedient, but Kestrel stared blankly into the nothingness as both Jökull and Dio went silent. "What are you two scheming?" Kestrel hissed. She knew they'd be able to hear her with their keen ears, but neither replied.
Fucking hell, she thought, raising her hand to her face, and Kestrel cast darkvision. The deep violet magic surged forward from the shadows around her, wrapping over her fingers, and Kestrel could feel the beginning aches of magic strain.
Kestrel opened her eyes to see Dio and Jökull, shoulder to shoulder, facing six shadow panthers. Four pairs of purple eyes snapped up at the display of shadow magic, and the beasts pulled their lips back to reveal gleaming white fangs.
The other two were fixated on Jökull and Dio and crept forward slowly, their bodies a mass of rippling muscle, black fur, and violet shadows. One of the panthers growled, the sound resonating in a low rumble that passed like a wave through the pack.
Jökull responded in kind with his own snarl. He looked practically mid-shift. His wolf ears were perked and the white fur blended into his white hair, and the nails on his fingers were lengthened by the ice claws.
Kestrel had seen it before: in a single leap, he would be shifted and the wolf jaws would close around his target. But she couldn't tell what he was waiting for until Kestrel realized that Jökull was deferring to Dio. He was waiting for her call before making any moves.
Swinging her legs over, Kestrel slid off her horse and landed with a thump as her knees buckled under her. The horses skittered nervously as the panthers followed Kestrel's movement, but with a wave of her hand, the wind horses stilled.
"Stay," she commanded the horses, and two of them stepped back to press against the rock. Kestrel glanced up to verify that the shadow beasts hadn't cornered them, but their surroundings appeared to be clear.
The panthers had scared away any other creature in the immediate vicinity. Kestrel hoped that her magic was enough to keep the horses from bolting.
A glimmer of light in her periphery caught Kestrel's attention, and she glanced over to see that Dio had drawn her blade. She held it out, and the grass and leaves on the earth were bathed in a soft, golden glow.
The shadow panthers hissed, ears flattening, and lowered themselves into a low crouch. Their eyes narrowed as they followed Dio's sword like moths drawn to a flame.
Kestrel put her hand out, feeling the ache behind her eyes increase in intensity as again, she drew on her shadow magic. The panthers reacted instinctively to her magic, and three stepped back to slip into the darkness.
"Kestrel," Dio said in a shocked voice right as Jökull cried out, "Kestrel!"
"Are you two trying to protect me?" Kestrel huffed a laugh but winced as she pressed her palm against her eyes. The darkvision spell was wavering, and the panthers with their slinking bodies were flickering in and out of vision.
Dio stepped forward, lifting her sword to illuminate the panthers. Their slitted pupils contracted from the light and they bared their teeth in silent snarls.
"Begone, wildlings," Dio said, slashing an arc through the air. "You've no business with us."
Kestrel watched as the beasts eyed Dio's sword and slowly began to back away. When Kestrel could barely make out their violent eyes in the darkness, they turned and scattered into the forest.
Dio breathed a sigh and sheathed her weapon. "I'm surprised they still understood," she said, walking past both Kestrel and Dio without meeting either of their gazes. She patted her horse and slid down the rock to sit with her back against it.
Jökull dropped his wolf shift and paused before joining Dio on the floor. He looked like he wanted to say something to her, but Dio had curled up, wrapping her arms around her legs and setting her chin on her knees.
Kestrel could tell that something significant had happened, but she could also read the air and it was saying don't ask.
"I'll take first watch," Kestrel said as she sat a few feet away from the two.
"Are you sure?" Jökull had reclined to the ground and was rummaging through his bag for food. He offered something to Dio, and they were both watching Kestrel with a frown.
"Just until the spell wears off." Kestrel turned away to face the forest. The horses had clustered together by the side of the rock outcropping, and they looked content now with the panthers gone.
"Wake me for the next watch," Jökull said and he turned over with a yawn.
Kestrel pulled Reed off her arm and held it ready in her hands as she scanned the darkness. All she could hear around her was Jökull's deep, even breathing as he slept.
Kestrel peeked behind to see Jökull sprawled out and Dio in the same huddled position as earlier. Before, she'd taken up the entire room with her presence but out here, Dio looked small.
She chose to use her sword instead of . . . whatever vampires do when facing magical beasts. Kestrel mused, her brow furrowing. A vampire who prefers being a spellsword. Kestrel didn't know what to make of her.