“This isn’t the time to discuss it.”
“Perhaps, but I don’t know when you will discuss it—” Stil hushed himself when a branch snapped somewhere past the wall of pine trees along which they crept. Stil peeled back the cape long enough to show Gemma his finger pressed to his lips before he drew her back in the depths of the cloak.
They crouched and crawled under the tree branches, careful not to scrape anything or make a noise. They made it through the tree wall and squinted in the darkness. Gemma didn’t see the tell-tale glow of Angelique’s dress anywhere. Perhaps the Lady Enchantress had already escaped?
Stil and Gemma took two steps into the dark clearing before the hellhound jumped them from behind. The animal pounced on Stil, knocking Gemma out of the warmth of the craftmage’s cape and into the cold snow. Gemma gasped at the temperature change and the jarring pain in her knees and arms from catching herself, but she scrambled to her feet.
The hellhound had Stil pinned beneath him, its giant claws digging into Stil’s shoulders—but oddly not piercing through the cloth of Stil’s cape as it lowered is massive head. Stil caught the thing by the throat and jaws, keeping it from snapping at his face.
While the two struggled, Gemma tucked her chin and ran. She rammed into the hellhound’s side, knocking the beast off Stil.
“Cudere,” Stil shouted, his voice hoarse as he tossed a metal bar into the air. He grabbed Gemma’s arm and dragged her to the side, barely moving aside in time to miss the hellhound lunging at their legs.
“Blaze!” Stil said before he caught his bar—which had transformed into a double tipped spear while in the air. Gemma couldn’t say she noticed how or when. The spear glowed with the intensity of lightning. It crackled as Stil swiped it through the air, narrowing missing the hellhound.
The beast leap backwards and growled. Its hackles raised as it crouched on the ground.
And then Angelique screamed again.
A nightmareish horse skulked into the clearing. Its eyes were milky white; its nostrils flared red, and it was thin and wretched looking.
On its back was a rider clothed in black with a hood shadowing its face. He—or it—had a grievous chest wound that oozed a black, tarry substance, and its breath came in pained wheezes. The rider held a small orb of black fire, and when it squeezed the fire, the scream was produced.
Angelique wasn’t injured at all. It was a trick to draw Stil across the border.
“Gemma, run back Verglas,” Stil whispered as he stepped between Gemma and the black creatures. “Get to the tent. Stay there until daylight. Then send word for Angelique.”
“Contact her yourself,” Gemma hissed, picking up a large rock.
“Gemma, I can’t protect you. I’m not the right kind of mage!” he said before bringing his spear up to take a blow from the hellhound. He twisted, using momentum and his weight to send the beast flying.
“Then we run together,” Gemma said.
Stil mirthlessly laughed. “Fine. Stay close,” he said, twirling his spear.
There was no exchange of insults with the rider. There was no attempt to reason or speak because there was no need. As Gemma stared at the cloaked figure, she could feel nothing but evil and an endless thirst for bloodshed. The rider could not be reasoned with. He and his beasts were made entirely of darkness. Stil fought the hellhound, alternating between blinding the beast with his weapon and driving it away with his spear. The dog snarled, foam dripping from its mouth as it blindly lunged at Stil. Stil rammed the pole of his spear into the beast’s mouth. The dog snapped its jaws around the pole, but Stil threw his weight into the weapon and flipped the beast backwards.
The rider loaded a black bolt into its crossbow and aimed the weapon.
Gemma threw her rock. It missed the rider but hit its horse, making the animal shriek and dance sideways. The rider released the bolt from his crossbow, but Stil dodged it, running forward to spear the hellhound.
The dog slipped under Stil’s spear and lunged for him, but it missed and locked its jaws on Stil’s new cape.
“Blaze!” Stil said, slamming his weapon on the beast’s skull while lighting the clearing up like a fire.
Gemma threw her second rock at the rider—this time pelting him in the chest. The rider turned its horse in a circle and hissed.
The hellhound disengaged from Stil and ran at Gemma.
“Climb a tree!” Stil shouted, chasing the hound. He managed to land a blow on the beast’s shoulder, opening a deep wound, but the mongrel ignored it and scrabbled for Gemma. Gemma had just enough time to throw herself on the trunk of a tree and clear the first branch. The hellhound caught the hem of her cape and pulled, yanking her back by the clasp at her neck.